I moved from England in 1999. I went to Greece. After Greece I went to France. After France I went to America. And now I'm here. Where, I wonder, is this taking me?
I want to make money from writing but that, as you can guess, is hard. I recently found a place I like, down by the sea, and I'm going to write about it soon. I could buy a house there, in the town with red roofs, built by the Venetians yet part of Slovenia. All I need to do is sell 100,000 books. Some people do that. Some people live in red-roofed towns by the lapping Adriatic. So far I've sold enough books to buy a cat.
Recently, my sister-in-law found a program on TV about Greece and she thought I'd like to watch it. No, I said.
"Because I don't like going back."
Even more recently (today, in fact), I was asked about my wife and why I am 3400 miles away from her. It's not clear from my blog, apparently. It was a question I had to think about. There is no pat answer, no answer that sounds true, no glib blame to lay at anyone's feet. And I don't like going back.
If it isn't clear from my blog, then for a moment I would like to look back. I don't have time now to write about the beauty of the red-roofed town, object of my desire, and I don't want to wait too long between posts. And so, as a labour-saving device and to answer any questions you might have, I'm going to post something I wrote a year after getting to those United States. It's just an insight. We should show rather than tell.
June 16th 2006.
I am looking at a picture of some fish. The sea is a uniform blue and the coral is the colour of porridge. In the foreground, the fish are bright yellow and looking rather smug. Behind them, looking like humbugs, the fish seem less smug. The dark brooding fish in the background don’t look smug at all.
“U.S. President George W. Bush announces the establishment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument (pictured), the world's largest marine reserve.”
The picture (pictured) is of the protected fish in various stages of smugness. If this is the marine reserve in its entirety, then it consists of one patch of porridge-coloured coral and one hundred and fourteen fish. I find myself less than impressed.
My favourite part of the page today (www.wikipedia.org) has to be a heart-warming piece about the Parliament of the United Kingdom. There is a photograph of the Houses of Parliament taken from across that most glorious of rivers, the Thames, and my breast swells with National Pride. I am British! I am an Englishman! I am treated to in-depth information about the bosom of democracy and it is more than I can bear. I need to stand up and sing Rule Britannia, my eyes moist with nostalgia and longing for my homeland. At least the homeland that exists within my head.
Earlier today a car stopped me as I returned from the park with my dogs. The car contained two ladies of advanced age and they asked me if this was Route Thirty. I leaned toward the car and apologised. “I’m afraid I haven’t been here long enough to know,” I said.
“Oh,” said Passenger Lady, “Never mind. When I was in England people would ask me for directions and I had to explain that I wasn’t local.”
They drove away, travelling down a road that I have walked many times and which may, or may not be, Route Thirty. I got back to the house and wondered why I couldn’t answer their question. Why have I not yet absorbed the simplest of things? When the phone rings I answer with a voice that could be Prince Charles, or at least an Old Etonian. I have never been, nor ever will be, Prince Charles, and I didn’t go to Eton. And yet I like to answer all enquiries as though I am so quintessentially English that I couldn’t possibly be able to speak knowledgably about things American. I answer the phone as if I am Sarah’s butler. I answer enquiries as though this is my first day in America and I, too, am hopelessly lost.
Perhaps I am.
For three days I was in a black mood. Sarah skirts round me when the shutters come down like this. She waits, like someone aboard an empty boat after the pearl diver has submerged, waiting to see if the diver will come back happy, or even if he’ll come back at all. “What’s it like down there?” she might ask as he bobs to the surface, her face trying not to show signs of desperate relief. “Oh, you know,” he says, not realising she came close to panic.
No, she doesn’t know, but she doesn’t pursue it. She guesses that some of the fish looked smug, and some of them less so.
Still on the porch wondering why I don’t know if the road is Route Thirty or not, something catches my eye. Three inches from the gate -- screwed, no less, to the fence -- is an object I have never seen before. I think it is a recent addition, but surely I would have noticed someone adding this recent addition? The only people who would add recent additions are Sarah or myself, and Sarah hasn’t mentioned adding a flag-pole-holder. It’s the sort of thing she would tell me. We have a very close relationship.
I studied the thing. Metal, hollow, about six inches long. It is inconceivable that I could walk through a gate four times a day for nine months and not notice a flag-pole-holder three inches to my left, but, sadly, it is true. And, it has to be said, it is inconceivable to imagine that I am living in a house that actually has a flag-pole-holder.
I am baffled by the American obsession with the flag. Baffled. Our neighbour has a huge Stars and Stripes dangling from the porch, and she isn’t alone in this obsession. The American flag is everywhere -- in gardens, in windows, above car-dealerships and shopping malls. In random places they fly, some of them as big as hot-air balloons. Sarah tells me that, in stark contrast to hot-air balloons, a flag touching the ground is a bad thing. They are no good any more.
“Excuse me? No good any more?”
“No,” she says. “If it touches the ground you have to get a new one, and you can’t simply throw it in the trash. That’s regarded as a cardinal sin.”
“So what do you do with one that’s no good?”
“There’s a white box in town,” she said. “You put them in there.”
A box for old flags.
Sarah’s daughter bounds up the steps, through the gate with its nearby-never-before-noticed flag holder, and shouts “I’m officially a fifth grader!” With that, she rips open the screen door with the enthusiasm of an official fifth-grader and shoves herself through the front door. We didn’t have this grade system when I was a kid. We had teachers who looked like barking mad astronauts. In Primary School we went from first year to second year and so on, till we were sent to Secondary School at the age of eleven and went right back down to being first-years again. Over the course of a summer, you went from top of the pile to bottom of the pile, in name as well as physical size.
I constantly ask, when Sarah reminisces about sixth grade or eighth grade, “How old were you then?” I cannot work it out. I do not know if the road by the park is Route Thirty. We have a never-before-seen-flag-pole-holder.
My sudden lapses into misery come from nowhere, go nowhere, and achieve nothing. It is the smallest of things that set them off. Sometimes I become hopelessly upset by the neatness of things, as though people keep their gardens tidy for some dark and malevolent reason, akin to Valentina’s unnatural hair and thin smile. I see people raking their lawns in the autumn as though the fallen leaves were conspiring to ruin a plan they have been hatching all summer. I have a vision of England, leaves armpit high. I have a vision of England.
Sarah's daughter is away this weekend so we took her into the city and then went off like a courting couple, hand in hand in the heat. We looked for a place to eat, finding a dark little bar on 2nd and C. Perhaps it was flag-holder-guilt, or Route-Thirty-guilt, that prompted me to get a Buffalo Burger. Buffalos, being few and far between in the South of England, made this exotic fare a natural choice. Maybe the absorption of a buffalo would go some way to offset my lack of absorption of anything else American.
It was good. Buffalos were doomed by their very tastiness. I asked for Guinness but it only came in a can, so I had a bottle of Budweiser. Sarah had soda. I love this woman’s company. We are together all day every day and for me, it isn’t enough. Considering how we met, the success of our relationship defies belief.
When I’m quiet, Sarah diverts me with English lessons. She is learning English in the manner of Eliza Doolittle. She has mastered Bastard. For days we have been working on Twat. She cannot believe that I pronounce it to rhyme with hat and we have been having pronunciation arm-wrestling over this one. Her simply erroneous version of Twat rhymes with hot or what. She has given in to me, because she can see that I need an ally. There are times when I just need an ally.
Sometimes I plunge, to a place with leaves armpit high and where there are no flag holders. Down there in the murk, I’m thrashing about in search of something. I’m looking for memories of where I come from. I’m looking for proof, which I can hold in my hand and, waving it high, come bursting to the surface. Sometimes I'm down there too long, and Sarah's panic is becoming harder to conceal.
In the continental drift of human emotions, America and Slovenia are drifting farther apart with each passing week. It's becoming a place I once knew and some day, the people who made up my life for eight years will be resigned to after-dinner stories. I don't like that much, but it's how things work. On the ever-wonderful Time Team, they've been digging up an iron-age settlement where the ancestor's bodies were broken up and buried all over the place, from under the TV set to right out beyond the Brussels sprouts. Why? Because they would keep relatives bones with them for years, until they passed beyond memory, and then they were laid to rest. Each person had a part, and each person buried their memories where they would.
One more link with America has just been severed. For some years I've been taking blood pressure meds. My extravagant BP readings were discovered quite by accident after I found a cheap clinic near Philadelphia. I went in with a pain and came out with high blood pressure. And so, for a few years, I've been swallowing small blue pills and fishing my way around the nether regions of the American health system trying to get prescriptions I could afford. Eventually I was able to get a quick BP reading and a new prescription for $35, but that system took a long time to fathom. On my last visit I got 3 months' supply because my life was in turmoil and finding a doctor in Slovenia was the very last thing I needed.
Last week I swallowed my last little American blue pill. I know, I know. I've been here over four months. I was nursing my meds, but now they were gone.
There is a medical centre in Bohinjska Bistrica -- sandwiched between the hotel and the temporary ice-skating rink. It looks nice. It has a big red cross outside, which suggests they'd come find you in a war. Nice-looking people go in and out, some of them carrying little boxes of, I don't know, medicine or kidneys. It all looks very clean and efficient and typical of everything I've come to expect of this country. I've walked past it many times, wondering what it's like inside and how hard it would be to involve them in my inaccurate blood pressure. Now it was time.
Inside the clean nice-looking doors are another set of clean nice-looking doors which lead into a pharmacy. This was not a pharmacy of the English kind, full of beach-balls, sunglasses and little plastic armies. Nor was it one of the American kind, which sells cigarettes. No, this was a pharmacy of the sleek Alpine European Laboratoire Garnier kind. It was clean, white, minimalist. The nice-looking counter was staffed by two nice-looking women who spoke perfect English. The actual pharmacist was, I have to admit, lovely. She looked up my American meds and discovered that they don't sell them in Slovenia, and an alternative would be needed. And I would have to get a prescription. She told me where to go.
Down the corridor was a receptionist. She asked if I had medical insurance and I said no, and would be happy to pay. She looked slightly concerned and I wondered what this would cost me. I wrote down my name, address and DOB, then took a seat. To my surprise I was then invited to see a doctor, a man who looked like a Dickens character, a music-hall veteran, a farmer in a white coat. He didn't take my blood pressure because I told him I have my own monitor. He looked in a book. He asked questions. He saw what the lovely pharmacist had recommended as a European equivalent, and he wrote me a prescription. His nurse ran me off a bill. Six euros. SIX EUROS. I can afford to have all kinds of illnesses here. Six euros and he did exactly what I needed with the absolute minimum of fuss.
I returned to the lovely pharmacist and waited in the clinical whiteness of her pharmacy while she did things pharmacological. I noticed she sells glue. Not ordinary glue, you understand, but the kind of glue that old people need to secure their dentures. I have a denture and, like the little blue pills, my Fixodent was running out. This was the first time I had seen anything suitable, here, in the land of the lovely pharmacist. This was going to be like that famous scene from Notting Hill. I was just a boy, standing in front of a girl, telling her that parts of me have to be glued on. This might be hard for many of you to understand, but it is difficult for a man to openly admit to an attractive woman that his teeth are glued in. One wants to appear robust. Bravely, like a boy buying condoms, I slid the packet of tooth-glue toward her.
"I'm old," I said.
"You are not so old," she said.
I felt like she would have been nice no matter what body parts spontaneously fell off.
I was elated as I walked home -- a major hurdle overcome. Later, I realised with some sadness that a major hurdle had been overcome. Another rope untied that bound me to my wife and the country I left four months ago.
Dana came to my aid.
Dana is a woman who appears every now and then and likes my blog posts. Sometimes she leaves long comments. She's a fan (I have 7, no less). The other day she wrote to me and asked if she could link to one of my posts. I was flattered, so go read it and, more importantly, go read everything else she has to say. She's a writer, and a good one.
It seems that I inspired in Dana a realisation that one has to get out there and explore, to find out what's around the next corner.
Well, Dana inspired in me the realisation that America, friends, love-ones aren't really drifting farther away. Like the bones of iron-age people, we can chose to keep them near us, or to lay them to rest. Loss isn't inevitable, it's a choice. Dana is a new connection from an America that is only a click away. The pharmacist is lovely. So I have European pills instead of American ones. If you go look round enough corners, eventually you'll get back home.
Slovenia, writing, other things