From Stateside Suburbia to Bucolic Britain

The Only Way is Essex

Is it?  Quite possibly, for Mrs P, no longer across the pond.

Our life has undergone a major makeover.  A year ago, we were tenants in a spacious New England style house in an upscale, upstate New York suburb.  Now we are back in the UK, living in our own house, a small-scale Grade II Listed thatched cottage, on the edge of a rural village in Essex. 

 

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Back in Rye, we had everything we needed on our doorstep; a gas station, grocery stores, upmarket boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants, doctors and dentists just moments from our door.  Now we live in an area with no mobile reception from which it takes fifteen minutes to drive to the nearest (village) shop.

Our little cottage is tucked down the end of a no-through lane.  I am biased, but it does feel just a tiny bit magic here.  As I sit here at the computer, my mind wanders and I survey the sight from my window: thatched roofs, trees loaded with blossom, expanses of green fields.  Silence.  Other than birdsong.

 

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I am a basic creature.  This is my natural habitat. Which is strange in a way, as we are not from these parts and only lived here for about five minutes before we were uprooted in 2015.  But I grew up in the country and there is nothing quite like rural England.

 

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Rural America was so different.  I did sorely miss this green and pleasant land; I never learned to love the dense woodland that made up much of the New York countryside; could never comprehend the endless highways that always had to be negotiated in order to reach rural parts.

 

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Coming back to four seasons has been something of a thrill.  It’s true that in New York the seasons were wonderful – there was the magnificent fall, the winters were real winters, crisp and cold and the summers were searingly hot, but whatever happened to spring?  There was no spring in New York, the seasons jumped from winter to summer almost overnight.  It has been a delight witnessing the British seasons again.

 


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on’t be fooled though – the blue sky days pictured above don’t happen every day.  Far from it.  There are plenty of dank, drab, dreary days, with leaden grey skies so nondescript that you can feel quite despondent.  And I had forgotten about the cold British dampness that chills you to your very core and for which the only cure is a lengthy soak in a piping hot bath.

 

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But I had also forgotten that when the clouds lift and the sun shines – the effect on people in this country is nothing less than monumental – we all feel like we’ve been reborn. 

 

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Then and Now 

We left London for Singapore in 2011 with one baby; we have returned to rural Essex with two school-aged children.  Barnaby (8) and Rory (5) attend a lovely little primary school (Jamie Oliver’s alma mater) fourteen minutes’ drive away.  Lunches are taken seriously by the school and enjoyed immensely by the pupils.  The boys’ favourite lunch is something called mince boats – minced beef enrobed in pastry – highly dubious if you ask me – I wonder if they might be Cornish pasties, a foodstuff my boys never previously encountered.

 

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The Voyage to Volunteering

I am currently a housewife or should I be thinking of myself as the more 21st century homemaker?  It was early in the school year that I put myself forward for some ad hoc volunteering at the boys’ school.  Little did I realise what a journey I had ahead of me.

Following a meeting with the headmistress, I was dispatched with a stack of forms to complete and asked to provide a character reference.

Next: a DBS check.  In the UK, a Disclosure and Barring check (formerly known as a Criminal Records Bureau – CRB – check) is required for those wishing to work with or look after children.  I whipped off a form online and received an immediate notification confirming that my application would be approved shortly.  Easy.

Moments later, I received an alarmist message saying that my application was on hold – they had uncovered a black hole in my history.  As I had spent time in America, I was to be referred to the FBI for further checks.  After filling out an exhaustive form for the FBI and forking out a fee (for what, it wasn’t clear) I was informed of the urgent need to report to my local constabulary for fingerprinting.

Cue numerous calls to find out where our local constabulary actually is.  Dramatic cuts to the UK police force mean that we no longer have a local police presence.  Countless phone calls later and it was anyone’s guess where I could have my fingerprints taken.  Eventually, it emerged that my nearest options were Hatfield, Stevenage or Welwyn Garden City, none of which were remotely near us.

One dismal Monday morning, I decided to bite the bullet and drove 45 minutes to Stevenage, which was marginally closer than the alternatives.  All I knew about Stevenage was that it was Britain’s first New Town – I remember watching a video on Stevenage during my Geography GCSE studies.  First impressions were unappealing.

 

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Reporting to the reception window, I gave the vastly overweight man spilling out of his uniform and onto his desk a cheery Morning! and explained why I had come.  I was met with a blank look. Who told you we do fingerprinting here? he asked.  Nah, ye’ll ‘ave to go to Welwyn for that.  Disgruntled, I ditched the offer of the Garden City and drove straight home.

Eventually, I discovered that there was a fingerprinting service offered at the police station in Harlow, so chose another dank day to chug the 45 minutes to Harlow in the Skoda. £75 later, I emerged triumphant with a set of fingerprints.  I am happy to report that on receiving these through the post, the FBI confirmed that I had not committed any murky crimes while living in America and issued me with a Certificate of Good Conduct.

I have since been accepted into the fold and have helped out on various occasions at Forest School and in the classroom.  Which is fine.  Every so often.  Once upon a time I thought I wanted to work with children.  But then my mindset shifted – I’m not sure when.

Perhaps I did too much babysitting as a teenager; maybe it was when I had my own children and they put me off, perhaps I have just gradually become less nice a person over time.  Who can say?  It is a great shame that I don’t want to work with small people – how useful it would be having the holidays off, for a start.

But I remain, at the age of 41, unclear as to what I’d like to do when I grow up.

 

An English Country Garden 

Our American back yard, which amounted to a square of lawn, has been replaced with a professionally designed front and back garden of which Henry and I have become very fond.

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We returned to our garden last year to find that it had become a small jungle, with giant nettles proudly swaying in the middle of the flower beds, ivy coyly draping itself around the garden incumbents and uninvited duvets of ground elder blanketing the beds.  Henry has become a zealous hedge slasher, while I have turned into a wild weed puller, making innumerable trips to the dump in Saffron Walden to ditch monstrous rubble sacks stuffed with garden detritus.

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On our first trip to the dump we thought we had been transported back to New York, as there, parked by the railings, was an NYPD branded police car.

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The Fifth Philip

We are now a family of five.  It was always going to happen.  Our family needed one more being in it.  Just not a human one.  Moments after we arrived back in the UK, I began trawling Pets4homes in search of a dog (a ploy to ensure we were not moved abroad again? – several friends wryly suggested).

The product of this search was the wonderful Plum, a Springador: a cross between Ruby, a Springer Spaniel and a Labrador called Turbo.  Plum is my third child, the daughter I never had.  She joined us at the end of August and I have been besotted ever since.

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I love her more than I thought possible – until of course she rolls in something unspeakable, eats something unthinkable or decides to desert me in favour of a running cat, rabbit or deer – at which point I loathe her (briefly) and then she is forgiven.  I will gaze indulgently at my little black friend with her oversized velveteen ears as though surveying my boys as newborns.  Plum has fitted right into the family and as Barnaby lovingly put it the other day: Life wouldn’t be life without Plum. 

The dog has begun to dictate my social life during the week.  Dog walks are the new coffee.  I can’t possibly justify the double luxury of indulgent dog walks and cups of coffee, therefore anyone interested in seeing me has to do so during a walk.

My family and other animals

In addition to a dog, we have also opened our doors to various other animals.  We are currently playing host to swarms of ladybirds or ladybugs as the boys still call them and armies of tiny bodied, spindly legged spiders.  The swathes of cobwebs draped around the house resemble ancient Christmas decorations.  I must learn about dusting.

But the least welcome guests have been the rats.  The thought of these disease riddled rodents living in our midst strikes a lightning flash of horror through my very core.  Henry and I were first alerted to their presence when we discovered that avocados and apples were being left for dead in the fruit bowl.  Then we started being awoken in the middle of the night by thunderous galloping above our heads.

An urgent meeting with Dave from Pest Professionals confirmed our worst fears.  These were rats and they were emerging from the fields and somehow getting into the thatch and – horror – into the kitchen.  I consoled myself briefly with the thought that they were country rats, but then I thought no.  A rat is a rat and we need to be rid of them.  Particularly as they have done more than just help themselves to treats around the kitchen; they have also guzzled their way through sections of electrical wiring and we are now wondering about the potential fire risks we face living in a thatched cottage.

This little beauty was recently recovered, dead, from the compost heap, having been poisoned by bait procured from one of Dave the Pest Professional’s bait boxes.  Look at the beast: he stretches across most of the width of our garden table.

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Space

I can’t deny it – space back in the UK is a challenge.  We don’t have any.  It doesn’t help that I am a fanatical bulk buyer, snapping up the same amount during supermarket sweeps as I did when we were living in America.

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The difference is that in America we had a cavernous basement and two giant fridge freezers, whereas we now have one small cupboard for food and an anorexic fridge freezer that was sold to us as an American-style one but is most definitely not.  No self-respecting American would dream of owning such a slimline affair.  It is full before I’ve even been to the supermarket – it only takes a jar of mayonnaise, carton of milk and a chunk of cheese and it’s virtually at capacity.

A couple of weeks ago, I did drive to a housing estate on the outskirts of Cambridge to pick up a small second hand freezer (complete with a selection of loose frozen peas and some stray oven chips).  This extra storage facility has given me a disproportionately big thrill.

We are also in talks with an architect about the possibility of reworking the small amount of space we have. Our little house may be miniature but we do love it.

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Village People 

In America, we spent all our time with people of the same sort of age.  One of the big draws of a suburb like Rye was the schools, so it was home to a fairly narrow demographic.

We are now finding it something of a novelty to be in a village containing people of all ages at all stages of life.  Back in Rye, we rarely had anything to do with our neighbours, but here they are ever-present and will appear, seemingly out of thin air, in the house or garden.

There is Jane from up the lane, who, one day appeared unannounced in our kitchen calling for her dog and another day popped up in search of an egg.  Then there is Ginny from next door who spontaneously appeared in the garden one winter’s day, announcing that she was building a snowman for the boys.  Ginny is a keen gardener and enjoys dipping into the garden tools on display in our shed.

The other day Henry was having a rare day working from home in his office upstairs.   Rory had a bad cough and was downstairs on the sofa watching television.  Barnaby and I had gone out. Ginny snuck into the shed to borrow some hedge cutters, peering into the window of the sitting room en route and spying young Rory alone.  The car was gone.  Rory was alone.

Later that Ginny tentatively approached me, nervously asking where we had been without Rory.  I howled with laughter at the idea of leaving my five year old to fend for himself.  I confess that at times when he is being irksome I am tempted to, but haven’t done so yet.

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We are lucky enough to have a wonderful family living moments from our door.  With children exactly the same age as ours, the boys are spoilt with these terrific on tap play mates and spend hours communicating via walkie talkies and coded notes, leaping around on the trampoline, building dens and spying on people from the treehouse.

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Lessons and logistics

Not everything is on tap in these rural parts, however.  I have learnt the hard way that it is quite easy, and not advisable, to run out of gas or oil.  A few months after moving back, we ran out of gas mid-cookathon (there is no such thing as mains gas here, only Calor Gas canisters) and oil (that was a fun eight days with no heating in the only cold snap of the winter).

There was a time when I nearly careered into a van because the Skoda’s brakes were unable to cope with a light dusting of snow and I dreamed of our trusty American Jeep which could plough through thick snow with ease.

Logistics are rather more complicated in the country.  I do spend a lot of time in the car, ferrying children, the dog and shopping around and it is quite normal to drive half an hour to a remote pub for supper with girlfriends.

It is a sign of the times that I was genuinely thrilled to unearth, from a musty trunk left untouched here for the duration of our time in America, a pair of Fat Face travel trousers, bought in 2003, complete with five pockets per leg and various oddly positioned zips around the place.  They are the perfect gardening garment.  My wardrobe was always slightly suspect and it has deteriorated further.

Living in the country, one seems to need at least ten different coats.  And accessories have changed too.  Handbags have been replaced with dog poo bags, heels with wellies and I can’t imagine life without a head torch.

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Goodbye Rye

It’s been a while…again.  If there are any readers left out there, hello and thank you..!

Mrs P is no longer across the Pond and hasn’t been for 8 months.  This blog may no longer be relevant, but I never gave a round-up of our last days in Rye, so, very belatedly, here it is.

After the accident, we had just five days to pack up our life in America.  And before we did, we were lucky enough to be waved on our way with some awesome hospitality from some exceptional people.

When we first moved to The States, we were warned that Americans don’t often entertain at home.

Pledges were certainly made – ‘Hey, fancy coming over for a grill?‘ or ‘We’ll arrange a grown up pizza night‘ but these didn’t often come to fruition.  We might go out for dinner to a restaurant, but dinner parties at the homes of Americans were few and far between.  Our American cousins are not renowned as the keenest of cooks.

However, one lovely American couple – Emily and Mackenzie – bucked the trend by rolling out a spectacular send off for us at their house.  It was early July; a sumptuous balmy summer’s evening.  Night was falling and armies of fireflies danced playfully around our party of ten as we lounged in luxuriant splendor on the Hurds’ terrace, drinks in hand, a vast array of apps – (nothing to do with software, but appetizers or what in our language are called canapés) – laid out before us.  It was all quite dreamlike.  Henry and I felt both humbled and honoured that our fairly new friends should go to such lengths.  Dinner took place around the most beautifully accessorised dining room table and was nothing less than exquisite – Maine lobster for ten, dontcha know?

 

 

Dessert was the most extraordinary creation, something I had never heard of – a root beer float.  I marvelled at how, nearly three years after arriving in America, I was still continuing to make these new discoveries.  For the uninitiated, this pudding, if indeed it can be called that, consists of a bizarre cocktail of root beer (a fizzy drink made from an extract of plant roots and bark), ice cream and liberal lashings of squirty cream delivered from an aerosol.  The finishing touch: a neon pink glacé cherry.

 

 

It was a magical evening.  The convivial party consisted of six Americans and four Brits – the chat, humor and drinks flowed and I felt flushed with affection for our hosts and all those assembled around their dining room table, all of whom had generously clubbed together and presented us with the most magnificent framed painted map of Rye as a memento of our American adventure.

All too soon it was time to depart and saying goodbye was bittersweet – we had had too little time with these excellent people before moving back to the UK.  I was reminded of how real friendships never just happen overnight – it can take such a long time to get to know people.  When would we ever see everyone again?  The thought caused quite a pang in my chest.

The next send off was a good old fashioned afternoon tea party held in Izzy’s leafy garden in Rye.

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It was a week day – the husbands were at work, the children at camp.  A group of girlfriends had gathered for the occasion, which was reminiscent of a scene from The Great British Bake Off.  There were cookies and cakes, scones, sandwiches and strawberries and it felt like we had been transported to Heaven.  It was the very best sort of afternoon and a blessed escape from the rental house we were attempting to vacate at the time, those hellish scenes being I have tried to erase from my mind.

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It was a scorcher of a day.  We refreshed ourselves with endless cups of tea and platefuls of homemade goodies.  The gorgeous group of girls (incidentally, when one is in one’s 40s, can one still qualify as a girl?  I fear not) had put in a huge amount of time and effort to compile a wonderful hard backed photobook for me, entitled Rye Recipes.  It was so touching – packed full of terrific photographs, notes, anecdotes and delicious recipes.  I look wistfully back on it now, fondly remembering our life in Rye.

Yet again it was time to say goodbye to a selection of friends I felt almost cheated to be leaving.  In truth, I didn’t find it easy settling in to life in a New York suburb.  I can’t lie – I never wanted to come to America and experienced a major culture shock in those first few months.

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But then, as so often happens, things became easier and this British wife actually started to enjoy American life.  About 18 months in and life seemed pretty good.  Two years in: two wonderful families we spent a lot of time with suddenly left and then life became slightly tougher again.  But that’s expat life for you – a rollercoaster of highs and lows where often the only predictability is the unpredictability of it all.

 

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First-rate friends of ours, Swedish Kristine and her Austrian husband Gunter – had moved to Rye at a similar time to us in 2015 and happened to be departing a few weeks after us.  It seemed fitting, therefore, to join forces and host a joint goodbye gathering.

This would be our third farewell – we had been lucky enough to have two others with our nearest and dearest, so I imagined this would be a fairly basic affair.  I had largely run out of steam amidst the enormity of the move and had decided that I did not have the capacity to whip up a proper party.  In my mind, we would expend minimal effort.  I saw this as an opportunity to invite everyone we knew in Rye to pitch up at Oakland Beach in Rye with picnics and we could empty our cupboards of liquor and chips.  It was July, so we could be fairly sure of balmy weather and the evening would run itself.  Ideal.

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Leaving the boys with a babysitter, Henry and I set forth through Rye Town Park towards the beach.   Transportation of the remnants of our kitchen cupboards was provided by a wooden Radio Flyer – a terrific little trolley or wagon we had picked up at a Rye tag sale.  Not exactly sophisticated, but most practical for the occasion.

 

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The Saurwein family had already assembled by a spot in the park overlooking the Long Island Sound.  They were presiding over a table laden with something close to a banquet and had clearly put in considerably more effort than their British friends with their wooden cart.

 

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John Lydgate, circa 1440, is said to have observed that comparisons are odious and yes, John, they are.  What could be more unfortunate than the contrast between the Saurweins’ efforts and ours?

Everyone had a laugh about the Philips’ efforts and we went on to have a wonderfully fun and relaxed evening, which, as expected, more or less ran itself.  The weather was peachy, there was plenty of food, drink and good cheer and it was a simple, low key way of saying farewell.  Just what we had hoped for.

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With final farewells under our belts, it was time to turn our attentions to our new life back in the UK.  Suddenly I had mixed feelings about returning.  I have to confess that in the run-up to the move I had become hugely excited about returning to the motherland and could hardly wait to get back.  Having been away for nearly seven years, I had started to feel increasingly rootless, wondering where we belonged.  From that perspective, it seemed the right time to be heading back to be closer to family and friends again; a chance to put down roots.

But once again, we would be new.  We were returning to an area with which we really had no prior links.  Other than a sprinkling of friends we’d made during our brief spell in rural North Essex in 2015, yet again we would be new.  At least we were used to it though, I mused.  We had become so used to meeting new people and making new friends how hard could it be settling into a new area? But then I thought back on all the time and energy we’d put into our friendships with people we’d met while living abroad and what a challenge it is to stay in touch and this unsettled me.

As we left Rye on that blisteringly hot July day in the back of a monstrous black SUV taxi, a jumble of emotions swirled around in my head.  What lay ahead, I wondered?  Who knew?

 

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Postcard from Rye, July 2018

 

 

 

 

 

The Accident

Just at the time when the chaos of our move back to the UK was reaching fever pitch, Henry found himself heavily under the cosh at work.  He was largely living in the office and had to admit to his wife that he would be until the time came for us to catch our plane back to London.

It was over to Mrs P.  But time was ticking and I couldn’t see how we were going to manage this move.  There was just tooooo much to dooooo!  I kept wailing.  I felt as though I had reached my limit.

One Friday afternoon in early July, when I was feeling particularly stretched, we were preparing to visit friends for a family barbecue.  Barnaby and Rory had spent the day at summer camp – that great institution without which most American parents cannot function.  Twelve weeks of summer holidays is a lot, and should be said in a grave New York drawl.

That day had been hot.  Very hot.  Too hot for the children to be released outdoors.  So they had been holed up indoors at camp for many hours and were now home, galloping around in a deranged frenzy, as wild as a box of frogs.

 

 

It was time to get the feral creatures outside.  I decided that they could go in the front garden for a few minutes until I was ready.  Our front yard consisted of a lawn that rolled directly onto a residential street that was always quiet – our neighbors would often string up a net and lob volleyballs around or practice hockey or basketball. It was completely safe.

Instructing the boys to behave in the yard, I raced upstairs for a speedy shower, threw on some clothes and filled in some holes in my haggard face, before returning downstairs to check what they were up to.  Their crazed shrieks rang through the streets of Rye.  Barnaby had turned on the hose and was liberally spraying his brother, who looked as though he was loving every moment.  I bashed on the window, yelling at them to behave, then returned to the kitchen to gather up the sausages and booze we were taking for the barbecue.

I was approaching the front door to leave the house when I heard it.  That horrific noise.  The blood-curdling, sickening screech of tyres and brakes.  Screams.

Blind panic.  Surreal.  Beyond hideous.

I hurtled outside in what felt like a slow motion stupor and was faced with the unimaginable horror of our boy, our little Rory, curled up like a foetus by the side of the road.  A long white station wagon had just hit him and had come to a standstill in front of our house.

So this is where it ends, I remember thinking, raw shock gripping my entire being like a vice.

The street was, in moments, choked with people and pandemonium.  The station wagon driver, a bewildered looking Chinese man, gaped in horror.  A carload of cops appeared out of nowhere and I was vaguely aware of my neighbour calling an ambulance.

I was too stunned to do anything other than gather up my boy in my arms and pray to God that he was alive.  I knew I shouldn’t move him but I was desperate.  He was conscious and crying, asking me in a tiny voice: Mummy is this a terrible dream? Is this a terrible dream?

Yes my darling, I thought hopelessly.  It’s the worst dream imaginable, and it all happened because I wasn’t there.  I wasn’t there.  It was too much to compute.  My mind pulsated with thoughts of head injuries and internal bleeds.  When the paramedics arrived and asked me what had happened, it was desperate.  I couldn’t even tell them.  Because I wasn’t there.  The words thundered in my head like the taunts of a bully.

In what I can only describe as a ghastly out of body experience, Rory and I were whisked into the back of an ambulance and strapped onto a stretcher.  My little four year old was howling in pain, sporting an angry purple egg on his forehead and road rash all down his back – he looked as though he’d had a run in with a giant cheese grater.

My dear friend Izzy suddenly appeared, as if by magic, immediately taking a shaken Barnaby away from the nightmare scene and off to the barbecue. I had managed to contact Henry, instructing him to meet us at the Children’s Hospital in Valhalla.

The outcome of this accident didn’t bear thinking about.  I couldn’t begin to allow myself to think of the possible consequences, so lying on the stretcher with my boy on my front, Rory slowly sinking into an uneasy sleep, I felt curiously calm and rational.  He was fine It was all going to be fine.

This rational outlook was short lived.  Arriving at the hospital and faced with Mr P in the stark, strip-lit corridors, I collapsed like an empty crisp packet into his arms, devastated beyond all comprehension.  I couldn’t see how this could ever end well.

The one crumb of hope was that while Rory was traumatised, he was awake and talking and didn’t seem concussed or confused.

 

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Once in the Emergency Room, Rory was wheeled rapidly behind some curtainsA  young, fierce looking female Korean doctor had appeared with a clipboard and was firing questions at the paramedics in an attempt to establish what had happened.  The truth was that they couldn’t say for sure and neither could I. Because YOU WEREN’T THERE – the ghastly taunts screamed again in my head.

I clung to our boy like a desperate limpet, willing him to come through this.  I knew that there could well be internal injuries and this was what the medics had to check as a matter of urgency.  Rory was peeled away and deposited into some sort of futuristic capsule for a full body CAT Scan.  Henry and I were left to pace the empty, strip-lit corridor.  I could barely utter a whisper or meet my husband’s eyes.

A kindly looking older woman in a white coat emerged from the room containing the capsule, assuring me that they would have results of the scans soon.  Soon afterwards they confirmed that the scan of Rory’s feet and legs had revealed no sign of any internal injury.  Bit by bit the doctors were working their way up, CAT scanning every part of Rory’s little body and every so often the kindly woman would emerge with news.  So far so good.  Henry and I breathed huge sighs of relief.

The big concern, though, was his head.  What on earth would they find?  Rory had been struck on the head by a car and I was preparing myself for the worst.  There then followed the most agonisingly long wait, during which I thought I might combust.  We knew that Rory’s head had been scanned but no medics appeared to tell us the upshot for what seemed like hours.  Clearly there was cause for concern.

But then, news.

Miraculously, our boy was fine.  He was actually fine!  Quite remarkably, the medics were able to confirm Rory had emerged from his road traffic accident, largely unscathed.  Nothing more than cuts and bruises.  I wondered how this could possibly be true, but was assured that there was nothing more to worry about.  They had taken every precaution and checked.  The relief was momentous.  Here he is after being given the all-clear, beaming at midnight at the prospect of his packed hospital supper.

 

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Seven hours after his hellish ordeal, Rory was back at home, tucked up in bed.  Surely a miracle.

And yet, months on, the horror of that day still haunts me.  Yes, accidents happen but how different things could have been.  I wasn’t there.  I should have been, but I wasn’t.  And for that, I can never forgive myself.

 

The Move; The Mission

Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow asserts one of the many magnets littering the door of our fridge.

It has been six months since Mrs P’s last post. The magnet mantra is clearly one I have taken to heart.  Should the P in Mrs P stand for procrastination?  Dickens said: Procrastination is the thief of time.  He was so right.  But why the procrastination? Why has a post been so long in coming when I used to churn them out regularly in America?

Well one stumbling block is that Mrs P is no longer across the Pond, but back in her homeland.  This blog was born out of a surprise move to America in 2015.  Mrs P was A British wife attempting American life. Now she is a British wife attempting British life, which is not quite the same.

I’ll admit that I have felt slightly bereft without Mrs P.  Over a period of many weeks, I have sensed a missive coming on and, finally, here I am, cranking up the ancient laptop to produce an update.

Life has been hectic since we arrived back in the summer.  I suppose that in effect we were overseas for almost seven years, with just a small break back in the UK in the middle, so there has been a bit to do.

 

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Relocating from Suburbia to the Sticks

In July, after nearly three years of living in America, we packed up our life and returned to rural north Essex.  This was by far our most challenging move.  When we left Singapore in 2015, from memory, we just left.  We had a small flat, no car, not a lot of belongings and some electrical equipment, all of which would work back home.  But extracting ourselves from the US of A was a more formidable operation.

 

 

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger

Downsizing from a spacious, fully furnished American five bedroom house to a small, fully furnished English three bedroom cottage has been interesting.

We always knew that when the time came to leave America, lying in wait for us in rural Essex was a tiny and already very full cottage.

I am a disastrous hoarder and, so it was, that when faced with a sizable empty American house, we filled it.  To the gunnels.  But apart from the odd investment piece like our American butterscotch Angel Delight coloured sofa, we knew that we had to ditch as much as possible.  It was a race against time to shift pretty much everything from our American house before the container arrived to take the few essentials we thought we could house back in the UK.

If we’d been leaving London, we could have piled up our unwanted furniture by the side of the road and it would have been snaffled in moments.  But I was pretty sure things didn’t work like that in the affluent suburbs of New York State.

As luck would have it, my brother in law Tim put me in touch with a coworker of his.  Kitty was moving to Rye at just around the time we were leaving.  She and her husband were upsizing from a bijou apartment in Manhattan to a five bedroom mock Tudor house in the heart of Rye and needed to kit their new place out.

Happily, they weren’t fussy, and took a good deal off our hands, even down to rickety Ikea shelves, a pink plastic shopping trolley and the kitchen table we had bought in 2015 in a hurry and had, over our time in America, grown to loathe.  Kitty and her husband were also, for some reason, interested in the Ikea daybed that takes even the most skilled DIY devotee approximately three weeks to build, six uncomfortable wooden chairs and various mirrors we’d picked up cheap in a garage sale.

All the electricals had to go – not so much as a hairdryer could return with us.  The US voltage is 120V, half of that in the UK and the frequency, wattage and plugs are all different.  Thankfully I heard that a British family was moving to America just as we were leaving, so made it my business to ensure that they took every last item with a plug, whether they liked it or not.

The rest of our belongings were sent to the thrift store, given away to anyone who happened to be around or posted on Craig’s List, a Gumtree equivalent.  It was a relief to see the back of this racing car cot bed, which Henry helped an Indian family strap to the roof of their car.

 

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I fell foul of a couple of fraudsters during my Craig’s List journey.  I received two replies to ads from punters saying they were interested in the items I was selling, but could not come in person to collect them.  They then said they would be sending cheques to cover the cost of the items.  I subsequently extracted from the mail, two Western Union checks that looked absolutely genuine, but then saw that they were for $890 and $750 apiece.  Pretty generous for a bread maker advertised for $30 and a Mr Coffee machine going for $20.

 

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The paperwork, the movemin, we had to contend with was quite something.  Once upon a time, I was a PA.  I used to eat paperwork for breakfast, so you might have thought I would find this move a doddle. But no.  This relocation from Rye required a new set of organizational skills that I seemed not to possess.

There was the lengthy process of making a decision about what should happen to every last thing in the house.  Beyond me.  There was the sourcing of quotes and commissioning of surveys from shipping companies.  There was the process of selecting a shipping company, compiling a list of every item we wanted to ship and assigning a replacement value to everything on the list for insurance purposes in case the ship sank.

Anyone living out of the EU for more than 12 months wishing to relocate back to the UK now has the pleasure of completing a Transfer of Residence form.  This was onerous for us because the form can only be submitted online once the shipping company has packed your boxes and produced a full packing list.  After our boxes were packed, we had just two days to wrap our life up before catching our plane home, so having to complete yet another major form amidst the rest of the move chaos was an unwelcome addition to the mix.

 

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Challenge Jeep

We toyed with the idea of shipping our beloved black Jeep home, until we remembered that it was left hand drive and guzzled fuel like a tramp downs Special Brew.  So we thought it would be a cinch to flog it via the Rye Moms Facebook page.  A friend offered to post an ad on our behalf.  At least 20 people came to view the black beauty.  I imagined everyone would be clamouring for it, but nobody was, until, after fearing the Jeep would have to be donated to a thrift store, one prospective buyer emerged.  Amy put forward an impassioned case as to why we should sell the Jeep to her which was sweet, as we loved our little 4×4.

We promised Amy that she could have the car the day before we were due to fly back to London and she handed over a check by way of a deposit, but begged us not to cash it.  Other than wondering if she would leave us in the lurch at the final hour, the sale looked like it would be perfectly simple.  But obviously it wasn’t. There was the usual pile of forms to complete and all sorts of peculiar stipulations like having to hand deliver our number plates to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Yonkers.  Tedious when we needed the car until moments before we were about to leave the country.

We were looking good on the Jeep sale, when Amy sent me a panicked text.  She had done some homework and discovered various skeletons in the Jeep’s cupboard.  What was all this about an accident? – she wanted to know.  Oh yes, the time when a Chinese grandpa rammed into the side of the Jeep one of the few times I ever took Barnaby to school by car.  I reassured Amy that the ‘accident’ had led to nothing more than a dent in the back door, since repaired.  She didn’t seem convinced.

Our prospective buyer then gravely informed me that the power steering return hose clamp (whatever that was, I had no idea) had been recalled a couple of years previously.  Why hadn’t we told her about this?  Had we returned it to the manufacturer? No, we hadn’t. We’d been oblivious to any recall.  Would Amy do a runner at crunch time?

Thankfully, in the nick of time, we allayed Amy’s concerns, resolved the necessary and the handover of the Jeep took place moments before we boarded our plane.

It did then occur to Henry and me that actually we could have sold the car back to Enterprise, from whom we’d bought the car in the first place.  They would have given us the same amount as Amy and we could have avoided all this hassle.

Here is our Jeep, sporting a clamp or boot as they say in America.  Shortly before we left America, I parked in a virtually deserted parking lot while nipping in to the dry cleaner’s and this was the result – an immobilized automobile and a heavy handed flyer from a crooked little weasel called Freddy, who had allowed me a full two minutes before booting me and demanding $70.

 

 

Surprisingly Archaic

Informing utility companies of our impending departure was, of course, anything but straightforward.  Several demanded we terminate our accounts by writing letters – nothing as new age as a telephone call or email would do.  Numerous outfits owed us money, but the idea of wiring us funds into our account or giving us a rebate onto a credit card was an alien concept – we would receive checks instead.  In fact, one check arrived with us only last week, four months after we left the country.

 

House Hysteria 

Over the years, I have vacated more rentals than I can count and I am familiar with last minute nightmares rearing their ugly heads.  Landlords, in my experience, have very different ideas about what constitutes general wear and tear.  Sometimes you get lucky.  But when cute animal stickers are peeled off a wall at the end of a tenancy and savagely take most of a playroom wall away with them, you don’t have a hope in hell.

And so it was that our last weekend in America was spent, not sunning ourselves on the beach sipping rosé with friends as we had hoped, but frantically sanding, priming and painting the sad and sorry looking playroom, in an attempt to restore it to its former glory.

Certain, miracle working friends have been known to clean their rental houses themselves at the end of their tenancies.  I knew that this would finish me off, so I found a cleaner, a cheery chap called Francisco who gave an enthusiastic spiel about his exemplary cleaning record.  I knew nothing about him, having just spotted a billboard advertising his services parked in our neighbors’ front yard.  But Francisco would be just perfect, I knew it. I booked him for the day of the great house key handover with the landlord and heaved a great sigh of relief when he turned up with a team of cleaners.

When I returned home at the end of the day to see the fruits of Francisco’s labors, armed with a pile of dollar bills for him, I was aghast.  He and his helpers hadn’t touched the refrigerator, the freezer or the range.  Surely it was a given that outgoing tenants could expect these to be left sparkling? Oh no, Francisco smugly informed me.  These were extras, they weren’t included in the original quote.  Baffled, I put myself to work, scrubbing furiously with sponges, scourers and Lysol.  We had under an hour until the landlord would arrive for the handover and it wasn’t looking good.

Meanwhile, out in the garden, Henry, whom I had summoned back from work with a frantic SOS call, was attempting to get the back yard into some sort of order.  We had always been in the minority choosing to do the landscaping ourselves.  Everyone has a landscaper in Rye, the idea of mowing one’s own lawn or weeding one’s flower beds is anathema to most.

Unfortunately, we had done minimal gardening over the past few months and the garden was a sorry sight. The removal of  the trampoline several days earlier had left an arid patch of brown which Henry had covered with grass seed and was assiduously watering.  The flower beds, which had always been devoid of flowers, had recently attracted a reckless rash of weeds.  Now, with moments to spare, we tore out as many of the weeds as we could and dumped sack after sack of black mulch on the beds.  Miraculously the end result was surprisingly good.

 

 

And who’d have thought it? – after all that stress, our Irish landlord declared that she was delighted with the state of the house.  We handed over the house keys and with light hearts, skipped off to Rye’s only hotel, The Courtyard Marriott, for our final few nights in America.

 

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Nothing is easy, but who wants nothing?

Well, Trump, I wouldn’t normally quote you, but, for once, I will.  You have a point.

Visitations and a Breakage

Our house has a slightly forlorn air about it this week.  We have had a run of visitors over the past few weeks and waved the last one off on Sunday night.

It has just dawned on me that we are moving back to the UK in under two months.  I am pretty sure I need to do something in terms of preparing for the move.  I’m just not sure what.  So while I ponder on that point: a post.

Back in early April, we welcomed a collection of Coopers from Bermuda to Rye: Annabel, Guy and their three children.

 

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We spent a magical Easter with the Coopers last year so it was great to be able to have them to stay with us.  There was excitement all round when we were reunited.  Annabel – a friend of 32 years – and I are godmothers to each other’s sons and our four boys are similar ages.  Sofia, nearly three, is a classic easy going third child who has no qualms about getting stuck in with an army of boys.

 

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It was early April, but it felt like midwinter.  I had warned the Coopers that they would be relinquishing blue skies and bright sunshine for a New York winter, so they came prepared.

 

 

We had the happiest of times with the Coopers – we did beach trips and coastal yomps, a trip to the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport and had a delicious early family supper at Rye’s winning organic burger eatery: Bare Burger.  Barnaby and Alasdair, both 7, made straight for the bar, behind which some sports game was being screened.  They sat silently like a couple of teenagers before being prised away by their parents.

 

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I am not sure that there is any restaurant better than Bare Burger.  I’d never considered a sunny side egg on a burger before moving to The States but now I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

We obviously love our children dearly, but it was quite pleasing tucking the scamps up at night and having unadulterated adult time to catch up over dinner.

 

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Shortly afterwards, we opened our doors to a flurry of Philips.  There was Henry’s aunt Anthea, her son Jim, his wife Bella and Daisy, a divine, smiley little creature of nearly one.  Poor Anthea had been infected by a monstrous cold by a friend of hers so spent much of the trip battling grisly symptoms, while stoically marching around Manhattan seeing the sights.

 

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Soon after the Philips arrived, so did spring.  Blankets of daffodils (which I have rarely seen in America) appeared, the magnolia trees proudly showcased their lavish, elegant flowers and clouds of blossom exploded in the trees of Rye.

 

 

We flung the French doors open and dined al fresco, the hot sun bathing our pallid faces and making us feel like we were on vacay.  Not a word I enjoy but one that increasingly seems to pop up.  Barnaby danced around like a loon making Daisy laugh while Rory got cross with her for destroying his Lego creations.

 

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We have lived abroad ever since Bella has been on the scene so had never previously spent much time with her.  This girl is a winner and it was such a bonus to enjoy some qwalidy time together.  While Anthea kindly babysat one night, the four of us rolled down to Bare Burger (where else?) for a delicious and fun evening away from cooking and kiddos.

 

 

A few days later, Henry’s jovial godfather, Anthony, came to visit us for four days.  He coped expertly with our exuberant/ exhausting boys and was a most affable guest.

 

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Anthony is also what my dear departed grandfather would have termed a good trencherman.  I had remembered that Anthony loves the Indonesian stir-fried rice dish Nasi Goreng, so embarked on an ambitious plan to create it for him, realising all too late in the day that I had almost none of the crucial ingredients.  Anthony vanished, reappearing as if by magic, brandishing buckets containing shrimp the size of small oranges.  The Nasi Goreng was complete and disappeared rapidly.  It is so gratifying feeding good trenchermen.

 

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We then enjoyed a fleeting visit from Henry’s younger brother Charlie who swung in to stay with us for a night after a long session of partying in New York.  Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to snap any pictures of my brother in law during his trip, but Charlie did share this shot he took on the streets of Manhattan.

 

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Shortly afterwards, my old university friend Clare Bethell (fondly known as Betty) arrived in the middle of a wild, unexpected storm.  At 6 pm last Tuesday we were basking outside under clear blue skies and a roasting hot sun; by 7 pm the sky had turned black and demented gales were hurling trees from side to side and blasting sheets of horizontal rain across Rye.  Driving to collect my friend from Rye station that evening, I was forced to take three detours to avoid endless trees which slumped lifelessly across the roads.

Unfortunately the weather continued in this vein for the duration of Betty’s trip.  She is a hardworking London girl with limited holiday allowance, so this was more than a bit annoying, particularly when Blighty was basking in a heatwave.  Nevertheless, Betty made it into the city to see the 911 Memorial and Museum and the Frick Collection and treated herself to the delights of the malls of White Plains.

It gave us all a great thrill tuning in to watch Prince Harry and Meghan Markle get married at St George’s Chapel in Windsor on Saturday.  While we sat huddled indoors, hiding from some distinctly British weather in New York, Windsor roasted under cloudless cornflour blue skies.

It was certainly no average royal wedding; American Episcopalian priest Bishop Michael Curry shook things up with his impassioned sermon, The Power of Love, royal reactions to which were most amusing.  The Kingdom Choir delivered a spine-tingling rendition of Ben E King’s Stand by Me and by the time Rutter’s The Lord Bless You and Keep You arrived, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.  The newlyweds looked ecstatic and the footage of all the pomp and ceremony put quite a pang of patriotic pride in my chest.

During her trip, Betty and I managed a few solo outings away from the boys, always crucial to ensure conversations are completed and sanity retained.

We managed a walk around the Edith Read Sanctuary during a rare break from the rain and then a run in a biblical style downpour.

 

 

There was the all-important dinner at, guess where? – Bare Burger…

 

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Then there was Greenwich Avenue, where we headed for a sodden shopping session on Saturday morning in a quest to find an outfit for Betty’s forthcoming trip to Ascot.

 

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As a mother of two boys, neither of whom can be trusted to be let loose in a retail setting, I rarely set foot in a shop.  Greenwich Avenue was an eye-opener.  Several of the boutiques along the Avenue were charging upwards of $2,000 for their garments.  Needless to say, Betty didn’t find an outfit and I came away with a pair of shorts for Rory from Zara.

Henry left for a trip to London on Saturday afternoon and the house was so cold that we each piled on several layers of wool and lit a fire.

By the time Betty departed the following day, the sun had appeared.  The boys began complaining that it was too hot and we were forced to crank up the air conditioning.

Such a treat to see my old friend, but I wish I could have arranged better weather for her.

And now, I really must address this move.  But there has been a setback.

Barnaby, who has been known to exhibit kamikaze tendencies, has broken his arm.

 

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He rushed onto some monkey bars following a sweaty session on the soccer pitch last week and plummeted seven feet to the ground, breaking both the ulna and the radius in his left arm.  The bone protruding from his forearm at a particularly eye-watering angle told me all I needed to know and we raced to the Emergency Room at Greenwich Hospital.  The poor boy was fed a cocktail of Morphine and Ketamine, before having his arm re-broken and re-set in a fat cast up to his armpit.

 

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It’s tough for a seven year old who rarely sits still to remain stationary at recess at school while his friends tear about playing games.  But that is exactly what he is having to do.  Fingers crossed the arm will heal quickly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The End of Mrs P Across the Pond?

And now for some major news.

It is with a sense of poignancy that I write to report that Mrs P Across the Pond‘s days are numbered.  After nearly three years in America and almost four in Singapore before that, we are bound for the motherland this summer.  And this time, it seems, it really is for good.

We have had an extraordinary adventure.  Never would I have believed anyone who told me that we would spend this many years living abroad, or that we would get quite so much from the experience.

 

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Back in 2011, I approached our impending move to Singapore with a sense of great excitement and anticipation.  Henry and I were keen to leave London with our baby boy, Barnaby.  Singapore offered us the perfect opportunity at exactly the right time.  Having had brief dalliances with Asia previously, I felt that this continent was already under my skin.  Henry and I could hardly wait for our Asian adventure to begin.

The happiest of times were had in Singapore.  It was a golden experience about which I could wax lyrical ad nauseam.  Don’t worry, I won’t now.  But by 2015, with Barnaby approaching school age and a second boy, Rory, under our belt, we decided that the time was right for a move back to the UK.

We made a decision, from Singapore, to buy a pretty little yellow thatched cottage we’d never seen, in a village we’d never heard of, in an area we didn’t know.  We had no family nearby and about one friend, but the village of Elmdon in rural north Essex was affordable and commutable to London, yet it felt like real English countryside.

 

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We returned to the UK to what felt like a dream come true after years of city living.  It all seemed too good to be true.  Sure enough, it was.

Henry was, out of the blue, offered a job in New York he couldn’t refuse.  So after two months of putting down roots in a new area of the UK, we began planning our second international move of the year.

I can’t lie.  I was devastated at the prospect of moving to America.  We finally owned a house of our own back in the UK and were living the life we had always hoped for.  To have it whipped away so suddenly was more than I could compute.

 

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We arrived in Rye, Westchester County, New York, in November 2011.

 

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Soon after our arrival, Mrs P Across the Pond was born.  The blog began as a type of therapy, a means of coming to terms with a move to America, a country that felt so alien in so many ways.  I never imagined I would visit The States, let alone live there, so what followed was a fairly extended period of adjustment.  At times, I wondered if I ever would adjust.

But of course, despite all my reservations and ardent belief that I would hate living here, I did adjust and have loved it.

 
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We have been so fortunate to live in and explore this vast, incredibly diverse country and it has been a fascinating cultural journey, making amazing mates and memories along the way.  Henry, my endlessly hardworking, wonderfully positive and stable husband – thank you.

 

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The wheels are now in motion for our return.  All of a sudden I feel daunted.  A lot has changed in seven years.  What will we find back in the motherland?  We are leaving a lot behind to return to an area we barely know.  How will we all adjust?  And how will I cope without Mrs P Across the Pond?

 

 

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Journeys in Georgia

4:30 am.  The alarm clock bell shrieked piercingly like a siren through my addled brain.  I leapt out of bed in a blind panic, our bedroom suddenly filled with the crass screeches of four alarms sounding from various positions around the room.

We were leaving New York for a week and heading south to Georgia, first to the coastal city of Savannah, then on to St Simon’s Island.

JFK was tediously busy, with endless queues of travellers snaking through the airport.  We went through the standard rigmarole at customs, with Henry despairing of his wife who always insists on packing bottles of water, hand sanitiser and bags of food and medicines.  Carry-on bags were ransacked, contents emptied into what the airport staff termed bins, what we call trays.  I think we used about 12 bins in total.  There was a brief battle during which Rory refused to go through the scanner – he feared it was going to consume him, but we got there in the end.

 

Savannah

The plane to Georgia was tiny and packed with passengers.  We boarded, blinked and before we knew it we were touching down in warm, balmy Savannah.  Brion – the first of several Uber drivers we used in Savannah, was born and bred in the city and told us exactly how to spend our three days there.

Our home in Savannah was an Airbnb – a clapboard house built in 1882 and awarded a Historic Preservation Award.  We had booked the Airbnb just days earlier.

 

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We had originally booked another place, but days before our trip received an unhelpful email from Airbnb with no explanation or apology, informing us that our booking had been cancelled.   Anyway, the one we ended up with was excellent, set on two floors and beautifully spacious.  The large kitchen opened out onto a secluded yard shaded by an orange tree.

 

 

The kitchen was sparsely equipped in some ways (there were only three mugs and no kettle – obviouslyI now understand that only Brits require kettles) but lavishly in others (a shiny faucet by the range, a sparkling silver tea set and a giant fridge bursting with fruit and soda).

 

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The style of this little house was right up our alley – heavily distressed doors, an exotic claw foot bath tub downstairs and shower upstairs with a head the size of an industrial sized frying pan.  I was drawn to the log pile in the fireplace upstairs, which on closer inspection proved, disappointingly, to be disks of wood that had been stuck to a board.  It was no surprise to find that both beds were dressed with those comforter things I have come to know and dislike.  I can’t stand the man-made fiber of these dubious bedspreads (what’s wrong with duvets?) and I suspect that they rarely make it into a washing machine.

We were staying near Forsyth Park, the largest park in Savannah’s historic district.  It all looked so lush and leafy.

 

 

For months, our vistas in chilly upstate New York have consisted of mile after mile of bare naked trees.  It was a true tonic, then, to clap our eyes on expanses of verdant grass and great billowing bushes of azaleas.

 

 

Imposing oak trees with gnarled trunks were everywhere, weighed down by swathes of Spanish moss.

 

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The boys felt quite skittish in these balmy temperatures.  Barnaby befriended a hippy who was sitting on a rug.  She lives in a teepee in the woods a few miles outside the city and comes to Forsyth Park daily, where she makes and sells jewellery.  Barn was taken with the idea of a shark’s tooth and selected one for his new friend to wire up to a length of hemp.

 

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We were very taken with Savannah.  I am generally allergic to cities, but I couldn’t get enough of this one.

The history of Savannah begins in 1733, when British General James Oglethorpe and the 120 passengers of the good ship Anne landed on the banks of the Savannah River. Oglethorpe named the 13th and final American colony Georgia after King George II. Savannah became its first city.

The aim of Georgia was to help some of England’s working poor, to increase trade and strengthen the colonies. The colony was also viewed as a useful buffer zone for South Carolina, protecting it from the advance of the Spanish in Florida.

I loved the story of how Oglethorpe became friends with Tomochichi, the chief of the Native American Indian tribe, the Yamacraw.  The two pledged mutual goodwill, with the Indian chief allowing the new arrivals to settle on the banks of the Savannah River. The parties went on to coexist happily and the town flourished without the problems that blighted many of the early colonies.

Oglethorpe laid Savannah out in a grid pattern that allowed for wide open streets interspersed with shady public squares and parks. Savannah originally had 24 squares; today 22 squares are in existence.  We marched around many of these squares on our first day and marvelled at the majestic architecture and canopies of trees.

 


The historic district of Savannah is completely captivating.  Stunningly attractive and tranquil, actually tranquil.  We could have taken a trolley (i.e. bus) tour but chose to see the sights on foot as the city is eminently walkable.

 

 
We nipped into the Savannah College of Art and Design to view a few exhibits, and I have to admit, take advantage of the restrooms, wadder fountain and central air – we were finding it odd being suddenly thrust into summer.

 

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On day two, we pottered through a series of attractive residential streets, which had an air of faded grandeur about them and were rather reminiscent of France.

 

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We stumbled upon a quirky junk shop called Eppy Epstein’s which was full of retro treasures.  Had we not been returning home on an aeroplane, I could have happily taken a few of Eppy’s items home with me.

 

 

Several hours were spent at the Savannah Children’s Museum which was not so much a museum as a giant play area.  It was all outside, heaven for the boys who spent hours playing and exploring, making towers with monster bricks, playing massive Connect Four and diving down slides.

 

 
That afternoon, we made our way to the Savannah History Museum, where an enigmatic young whippersnapper gave a reenactment on the very site of the 1779 Battle of Savannah, the second bloodiest battle of the American Revolution.  During the siege, a joint Franco-American assault against the British failed and the British went on to retain control of Savannah until 1782.

 

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Barnaby could not have been more delighted to be part of this imaginary battle and made his way to the front of our party, brandishing his wooden musket with glee.  Rory was less enthralled, becoming more red faced and cross as the heat of the day took hold.

 

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Barnaby had been sorry to miss an ice cream social at school that day (we had taken the boys out of school and nursery for a couple of days) so we promised the boys ice cream.  It did mean rather a long slog to get to Broughton Street  – reportedly the only place to buy ice cream in the city – and the famed Leopold’s – which has been doling out ice cream in Savannah for nearly 100 years – was rammed.

 

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We found an alternative, though, which went down well.

 

 

Brion the Uber driver had said that we absolutely couldn’t miss River Street, the cobbled street that runs along the length of the Savannah River.  Powered by ice cream, we sped on foot through downtown Savannah…

 

 

…to the area that underwent a million dollar urban renewal project in the 1970s.  To be honest, River Street was a bit of disappointment – perhaps that’s because Henry and I are getting old, but the stretch of touristy shops and restaurants didn’t compare to the picturesque beauty of the historic district.

 

 

On the morning of our third day in Savannah it rained solidly and it wasn’t until the afternoon that we were able to venture outside.  Another Uber transported us to Old Fort Jackson, Georgia’s oldest standing brick fortification, and reportedly a must see National Historic Landmark located on the banks of the Savannah River.

 

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It was a dreary, grey, British type of afternoon and we weren’t blown over by Old Fort Jackson, but the boys enjoyed examining the cannons and, more than anything, grubbing around in a muddy puddle.

 

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And just like that, it was time to kiss goodbye to lovely Savannah and head off on our next adventure.

 

 

St Simon’s Island

For the second leg of our southern adventure we needed an automobile.  I had my heart set on a pick up truck, having developed a taste for these whopping machines when we were given one as a courtesy car last year.  I had pre-booked a medium sized truck online, but when Henry went to the Thrifty desk on Easter Saturday morning he was offered a Ford F150, a massive beast of a thing.  I was overjoyed.  This was beyond my wildest dreams.  Here it is in all its glory, positively dwarfing Henry.

 

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We hit the I95, the motorway that runs for almost 2,000 miles from Miami in Florida, all the way to New Brunswick in Canada.  We felt right at home in our pick up truck.  Everyone seemed to be driving one, many towing gargantuan motor homes behind them.  Other, even more monstrous motor homes the size of coaches thundered along the highway, alongside immense lorries.

 

 

In just an hour and a half we had reached St Simon’s Island, one of four Barrier Islands off the Georgia coast known as the Golden Isles.

At 11 o’clock we pitched up at Queen’s Court, which we had booked for three nights.  First impressions were disappointing.  The pictures on the website gave the sense of a trendy boutique hotel by the sea.  But no.  This looked suspiciously like a roadside motel and was nowhere near the water.  The receptionist, sporting clouds of white hair that cascaded over her shoulders and onto the desk, said that we were far too early to check in and told us to disappear until 3 o’clock.

So we locked up our truck and pottered down to Pier Village – the downtown social hub of the island.  Row after row of pick up trucks lined the main street and the village was awash with an eclectic mix of characters, including cowboys, couples in his ‘n’ hers outfits and a pig called Albert on a leash.

 

 

The boys were delighted with lunch at Iguanas Seafood Restaurant
particularly as it was an all-American joint and had a complimentary ice cream bar offering soft serve Mr Whippy style ice cream with toppings ranging from crushed Oreo cookies and gummy bears to lurid jellybeans and suspect looking Hershey’s sauces.  Iguanas was one of a number of eateries located along the main drag, all of which served exclusively American food.  I know that we are in America, but don’t American diners sometimes want a break from fried chicken and burgers?

The sun vanished after lunch, leaving a somewhat grey, leaden sky in its wake.

 

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The long stretch of beach was largely empty that day – just one couple reclined on beach chairs in the blustery wind in front of a stretch of grand villas.  Might they be English? I wondered.  Surely only the English would sit under grey skies with such dogged determination?

 

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Walking along the pier while the boys played mini golf later that afternoon, I met a remarkably relaxed pelican,  admiring the view across the water to St Simon’s Lighthouse.

 

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We returned to Queen’s Court late that afternoon to check in.  The sun was emerging from behind the clouds, casting a more hopeful light on our accommodations, which I had earlier feared would be dubious.

 

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We had been assigned a fairly spacious type of suite, two double bedrooms, a bathroom and a sitting room, which also included a dining table and chairs.  Everything was sparkling and I was pleased to note crisp white linen on the beds.  No sign of any grubby comforters.  There was a fully fitted kitchen with a vast fridge (of course), large oven, microwave and masses of cupboards.

Unusually, however, the kitchen also happened to be in our bedroom.

The kitchen cupboards were bare, but there was a note pinned to one door.

 

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Perfect.  I was planning to whip up pasta for the boys’ supper and steak and chips for Henry and me later on.  I nipped down to the office to request cooking equipment and utensils from an orange beard seated behind the reception desk.  He looked at me blankly.  Clearly no guests had ever asked to cook on the premises.  I have since learned of a study conducted by Harvard Business Review over two decades, which found that found that 90% of Americans don’t like to cook, so this makes sense.

Orange beard disappeared into a box room, emerging with two frying pans thick with dust and a corkscrew.  This is all I’ve got, he shrugged.  And so for the next few days, that’s what we managed with, along with a small pizza tin donated by the pizza joint across the road.   We went out a couple of times and picnicked for lunch, so in the end the pizza tin and frying pans did us quite well.

Henry and I were intrigued to unearth a tin of Copenhagen Snuff from under the sofa during our stay.  Quite why anyone would want to snort ground tobacco and risk gum disease and tooth loss was beyond us.

 

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Easter Sunday

While the boys slumbered peacefully in their beds, I snuck out at 6:15 on Easter Sunday morning to attend a sunrise service on St Simon’s Pier.

 

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It was an impressive operation – rows of chairs and a sound system had been set up along the pier and proceedings kicked off with a flamboyant baptist minister called Garry booming PER-RAISE the LORD and AYMEN!  There were prayers, readings and a sermon and the most moving rendition of Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth – delivered by a woman with a hauntingly beautiful voice – it took me back to my school days.

 

 

Back at base, we breakfasted on an unhealthy repast of Honey Nut Cheerios and Cadbury’s Mini Eggs, the eggs kindly donated by an old university friend who recently came to visit from London.

Down in Pier Village, we collected the necessary from Two Brothers Bike Shop.

 

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Before long we were powering along a network of bicycle trails on a scorching hot Easter Sunday morning.  We passed numerous churches, pristine golf courses and wonderfully authentic American houses with pick up trucks parked out front.

 

 

The Easter Bunny had deposited some chocolate eggs in our rucksack, so we enjoyed these mid-morning in a secluded spot where palm trees gave way to swathes of salt marshes.

 

 
It was well worth the long ride up to the north of the island to Fort Frederica – the ruins of a military bastion that was once a clear sign of British power in the region.  Georgia’s founder, General James Oglethorpe, established Fort Frederica to defend the young colony against attack from the Spanish in Florida.

 

 

We enjoyed a peaceful picnic by the water, before running into a couple dressed in 19th century garb.  The husband was a blacksmith and vegetable grower, the wife was roasting a chicken over a fire and making candles from beeswax.  Barnaby and Rory were fascinated by this journey back in time.

 

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On our journey back on the bikes that afternoon, I was captivated by the way in which the pristine golf courses and private resorts suddenly gave way to a huge and humble trailer park.  I peered, fascinated, at this other world, which was such a stark contrast from the luxury located right outside its gates.

 

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I was delighted to see that East Beach, where we flopped for a couple of hours, enjoys Trash Free Beach status.  A humpback whale, stuffed with trash greeted us as we parked the bikes.
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We kept coming across references to Dawgs on our travels around Georgia and wondered who they were.  They appeared to have a large and loyal following.  I have since learned that they are the Georgia Bulldogs, the University of Georgia’s American football team.

 

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Jekyll Island 

One of our final Georgian journeys was to Jekyll Island, the smallest of Georgia’s Barrier Islands and just a half hour drive from St Simon’s Island.  We needed no encouragement to hop in the pick up – this vehicle already felt like a much loved member of the family.

 

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It was a suspiciously murky day as we set off, a thick mist hanging oppressively above us.  Miraculously though, as we drove over the Sidney Lanier Bridge to Jekyll Island, the clouds lifted, giving way to clear blue skies.

 

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Our first stop was Driftwood Beach.  This hauntingly beautiful, deserted stretch of beach was peppered with large, bleached trees and gnarled branches.  This is apparently due to coastal erosion of the north end of the island and the resulting detritus being deposited on the south end.

It was an extraordinary sight, as if the driftwood had been dumped directly from the sky.

 

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It is always a treat to discover places where others are not.  I’m sure that in high season the place is overrun by camera wielding tourists, but that morning, Driftwood Beach was deserted.

 

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We spent the rest of the day at a very different beach a few miles away: Great Dunes Park.

 

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Suddenly we were in summer holiday mode in early April and it felt like heaven.  The boys swam.  There was no way I was putting my pasty bod into a swimming costume and the water was decidedly fresh, so I left them to it.  We picnicked, played and walked along the beach.  It was wonderful.

 

 

After a morning’s crabbing of St Simon’s Pier, we hit the beach for our last couple of hours and met a delightful family on the beach.

 

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They had recently relocated from Atlanta and their son Corbyn (interesting name?) struck up an instant friendship with our boys.  Staci, the mom, told me that her husband had caught a shark the previous day and that ‘gators up to 10 foot long had recently been frequenting the beach.  Gulp.

We emerged unscathed, however and it was with heavy hearts that we packed up the pick up and headed for Savannah Airport.

Three cheers for southern charm.  The south is a whole world away from New York.  The pace of life is slower, the people more relaxed.  I lost count of the number of times we were asked Where y’all from?  and the occasions my questions were met with a cheery and definitive Yes Ma’am! 

Georgia you were wonderful.  One day I hope we’ll be back.