The Saga of Starting Afresh in the Old Country

I’ve moaned about it whenever I had a fasciculi(?) of internet connection. I’ve gone all dark and dramatic, hinting at technological conspiracies and unfinished business involving trained assassins sent by the French tax authorities. I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of utility companies, local councils, applications for local schools and goods damaged in transit.

So yes, I think you might have gathered that I’ve moved between countries and that I’ve not gone quietly or elegantly.

The carnival of moving...
The carnival of moving…

After 12 international moves and having lived in 20-30 different houses or flats over the years (I’m not counting the places I have lived in for 2 months or less), I have the feeling I never want to move again. Nomadism is for young people, I tell myself. So much easier to do with a couple of suitcases (filled with books and shoes, naturally) than with children, furniture, kitchen ware and everything else.

I know other people’s house moves are deadly boring, but bear with me for one last whinge and I promise afterwards to turn forevermore to reading and other, more interesting and intellectual occupations.

Low points:

  • Leaving a very beautiful location before I was quite ready to let go
  • Moving to an older, more decrepit house which requires quite a bit of renovation (for which I don’t have the money). The first time I touched the kitchen drawer, the front came apart in my hands. Finding all sorts of little things wrong with the house after 3 sets of tenants in 5 years.
  • Not having phone or internet for 2 weeks or more – and realising that you can’t apply for or order things if you don’t have a phone number
  • Not being able to find the most important stuff, while finding pretty much all the useless stuff which you should have thrown out before moving
  • Not having enough UK plugs or adaptors. Remembering they are up in the loft somewhere but being unable to find them in the forest of boxes quietly crumbling away up there. Learning to live once more with unmixed taps.

unmixed

  • No storage space to unpack all the boxes and therefore no easy access to clothes and other items. (Those built-in wardrobes in France covered a multitude of sins).
  • The first time I plugged in my laptop in the UK, it died. Same thing with my tablet. I also had to get a new phone. So that meant no writing, reading, tweeting or administrating … because yes, I couldn’t remember my passwords and I had to log on from other people’s devices and I must have been driving everyone (including myself) crazy with finding quirky new ways to prove my identity.
  • Starting to look for permanent positions in my field and realising that I will be sacrificing either my time and soul or else money (and my children’s welfare) doing work I no longer quite believe in.
  • Being really tired all the time and anxious about losing track of something important

But it’s not all noir (despite my fondness for the dark side). There have been some highlights too:

  • Our friends in the local area are very excited to have us back and have made us feel very welcome. There are advantages to moving back to a familiar place rather than somewhere completely new.
  • We are close to London and I’ve already had a wonderful day there, watching ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the National Theatre, and mooching around on the South Bank. After years of living in a rural backwater, you can’t help but be energised by London’s cultural life and metropolitan vibe (as long as you avoid rush hour, of course).

London

  • The countryside is close by if you do get tired of the city, and we are fortunate enough to live in quite a pretty area, reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows. Best of both worlds!
Finding Mr. Toad and his motor again at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley.
Finding Mr. Toad and his motor again at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley.
  • It’s so easy to set up services, complain about things and do all the administrative twaddle in English rather than French. I feel I actually know what I’m talking about!
  • Being reunited with old possessions (I am referring, of course, mainly to books, but also my elephant collection or my children’s early artworks and photographs).
  • Closer to publishers, literary events, English language bookshops and libraries. My children nearly fainted with excitement at seeing a whole library full of books in English, instead of just the 1-2 shelves they would see in the local libraries in France.

Still, for the time being, this is how I feel most evenings…

After her long road trip, our cat collapsed in her new home, in the conservatory.
After her long road trip, our cat collapsed in her new home, in the conservatory.

Getting Your Priorities Right: Moving a Library

The most important part of the moving process (other than the emotional impact on the children and the cat) was the library. How do you weed out the books you simply must take back to the UK? You may think it’s easy. After all, it’s a case of moving from less to more…

Shelves in France - just two.
Shelves in France – just two.
Shelves in England: three and a half. Still Billy, of course.
Shelves in England: three and a half. Still Billy, of course.

But that does not take into account the books I had double-shelved or set in careful piles on the floor and the filing cabinet. ‘You do have a lot of books…’ sighed the removal men (and I don’t think it was wistfulness I detected in their voices).

I did donate some to the local libraries in France, but I ended up with many more than I had originally come with to France. As any book loverwill understand. So somehow, all of the contents of these boxes…

Boxes1

…have to find a home in the new house. Yes, the study might be bigger here…

Boxes2

… but did I mention that I have twice as many books in the loft, waiting to be rehoused together with their more travelled cousins?

After a week or two of utter panic (not finding the legs for the desk, not opening the right boxes, laptop dying and then the e-reader/tablet dying, I finally managed to get things somewhat presentable (though not arranged yet according to subject, language and other esoteric criteria).

ArrangedShelves

Time to be reunited with some old friends from the loft.

REunited

Sadly, my copies of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Vile Bodies’ seem to have suffered from some warping in their box in the loft. But I have Jean Rhys’ unfinished autobiography ‘Smile Please’ to read for Jean Rhys Reading Week and Barbara Pym’s diaries and letters, as well as Dostoyevsky and other Russians (short story writers) to keep me company. Plus a few of my favourite children’s books, which I brought back with me from Romania: Arthur Ransome, Paul Berna and Eleanor Farjeon’s collection of stories ‘The Little Bookroom’.

There is more digging to be done, as well as more writing and reading, but for now, this was just a post to let you know my books and I are alive and well.

 

 

Overdosing on Facebook

After a brief honeymoon on Facebook back in 2009/2010, when I reconnected with friends I hadn’t ‘seen’ in 10+ years, I became a very infrequent visitor. But over the past few weeks, while attempting to sell household items, old toys, sports equipment etc. prior to our move, I’ve been checking in several times a day. With some dismay.

Buying and Selling on Facebook in Privilege Land

marketplace.secondlife.com
marketplace.secondlife.com
  • The number of items for sale in June/July in the Geneva area is unbelievable. You can have your pick of furniture, clothes, toys, inflatable pools, cars, bicycles, barbecues and electronics if you are buying. But no one is buying, because everyone is either on holiday or else about to relocate. By September, when the changing of the guard is complete, people new to the area will be looking for second-hand items… and there will be NONE.
  • The dialogue is straight out of Eugene Ionesco:

‘What do you mean, I need a minivan for a corner sofa? But I don’t live in a minivan.’ ‘Where is the nearest bus stop? Why can’t I take that solid pine chest of drawers on a bus?’  All waiting for you to utter the magic words: ‘Fine, I’ll bring it to you.’

‘How much did you say this was again?’ ‘Oh, you meant euros, not francs?’ “What, you live in France? Oh, no, I never come over the border…’

‘Yeah, I know I asked about the measurements before I came to pick it up. But now that I look at it, I realise it will never fit in my living room.’

Plus, of course, every appointment will need to be rescheduled at least twice. Busy, busy, busy lives we all lead, even though we seem to be trawling through Facebook very frequently.

  • I can’t believe how many people are selling unused Celine bags, unworn Prada shoes and Gucci tops. Someone has clearly been having a shopping binge or is of a vacillating disposition. Or there are too many husbands/lovers out there who still don’t get their women’s taste!
Facebook updates (anonymised)
Facebook updates (anonymised)

The Joy of Updates

I’m really happy that people are happy – don’t get me wrong. I am not one fat killjoy waiting to pounce on you. But it’s become a blast of trumpets (or vuvuzelas) rather than a conversation. Look at me, look at me!

  • Far too easy to click ‘like’ and believe that we are actually interacting. Whilst all along we are thinking how to top that story with one of our own.
  • I’m also inherently suspicious of people who are projecting too much joy – are they trying a tad too hard? A day out is no longer fun if you do not instantly upload the pictures for all to see. You cannot kiss your partner on your wedding anniversary in the quiet of your bedroom or kitchen without inviting the world along to peek.
  • My modesty feels assaulted when I see people patting themselves on the back in humblebrag mode. I am delighted that their children have achievements to share, but would rather not rub it into the faces of those who don’t.
  • The friend who’s constantly ‘too busy’ to meet up with you or invite your son over to see her son, and then you see her posting pictures of her walks and bike rides and having other friends over at her house? A cold shower, that’s for sure.
  • As for those who whine about the awful day they’ve had and how they deserve that glass of wine, the recent documentary on immigrants on BBC 2 Exodus: Our Journey to Europe shows you what a really bad day, week, month or even year looks like.

I say all this and yet I’ve been guilty of every single one of the above myself on occasion. That’s why I don’t want to play ball anymore. I can commiserate or share my small triumphs directly with my friends, the friends who I can rely on to cheer me up and save me when I am down, who are not envious about any success. Without half the world witnessing our conversation.

This is a picture I did upload recently.
This is a picture I did upload recently. Meeting with some friends to say goodbye.

The Powerlessness of Politics

Facebook is also a great place to discover that some of your friends of yore have very different political views to your own. Somehow, it never came up in face-to-face conversation… or have you been away for too long and political views can change so dramatically as they approach middle age?

It’s become an ideological battleground (although meaningful arguments cannot really be conducted via quick messages and article links). Above all, it’s become a judgemental moral high ground: ‘How DARE you not change your profile picture to a French/Belgian/Turkish or whatever flag? How dare you not express your sadness or outrage? That surely makes you against us.’

I’m reminded of the Communist dictate: ‘Those who aren’t for us are against us!’ I refuse to succumb once more to the tyranny of ‘what is prescribed behaviours’. I can mourn in my heart, alone, in a darkened room. There is no need to have a competition of who can mourn the loudest online!

Women in India mourning, from voanews.com
Women in India mourning, from voanews.com

But There Are Good Things Too…

Despite all that, I admit that I like pictures of my (real) friends’ children, to see how much they have grown. I have a soft spot for cat pictures and even dogs are adorable (especially in pictures rather than in real life). I like photographic challenges of landscapes or skyscapes, but am not so keen on selfies, food pictures and holiday snaps. It reeks too much of being invited for family dinner at our neighbours’ as a child, and being forced to sit through a hundred decks of holiday slides.  I suppose the difference is that nowadays no one is forcing you to look for the price of a dinner.

Soooo that’s exactly what I’ll be doing very soon, once all the stuff is sold or given away.  Not looking.

Book Review: ‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone

As a serial expat myself and a big fan of thrillers, I had high expectations of Chris Pavone’s debut novel ‘The Expats’ and it did not disappoint.

The story in a nutshell: Katherine is a typical American expat in Luxembourg, dissatisfied with her life, missing her sense of purpose and past career, but unsure what she wants.  Or is she? Her husband Dexter is a good-natured computer geek working on security issues for banks.  Or is he?  They meet an attractive, yet strangely mismatched childless American couple, who seem keen to befriend them. Or are they?  Well, as it turns out, no one is quite what they seem in this page-turner, with more plot twists than I have had coffees.  I woke up during the night and adjourned to the guestroom to finish reading it, which is unusual behaviour indeed. Continue reading Book Review: ‘The Expats’ by Chris Pavone