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a British military family's move to Georgia, USA

Bluegrass, AK-15s, and a former president

sheriff

Yatesville’s Sheriff, Dan Kilgore, tunes up for a set of live Bluegrass at the Chitlin’ Hoedown.

Autumn has reached the Deep South bringing clear, bright days, cooler nights, and beautiful ‘fall color‘ to the woods surrounding our home. We fill a whole bucket with pecans collected from Mr J’s air force base, our friends’ yard, and President Carter’s boyhood farm in Archery.

With Thanksgiving week off school, I put our children to work sweeping up leaves and pine needles for 25¢ per bag. They earn $1.50 each. It is a valuable lesson in repetitive tasks when they wake the next day to a new layer of leaves on the lawn…

Autumn is probably the prettiest time of year in Georgia and we take advantage of the milder, mosquito-free conditions to catch some unique outdoor events.

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This young tractor driver joins a parade of vehicles celebrating Yatesville’s rural culture.

First comes our day out in Yatesville, home of the Chitlin Hoedown. We have driven through Yatesville many a time on our way to Woodbury – the setting for the Walking Dead comic books, and now home to the charming and lively Blackbird Cafe.

We have never been to a hoedown. And Mr J needs to satisfy his curiosity: what on earth are Chitlins? It is time to pull over just beyond the town’s only set of traffic lights and find out.

When I describe Yatesville as a town, it is little more than a crossroad of derelict stores; the crumbling facades of former feed stores testify to the fragility of rural economies and the power of the Dollar General.

The Urban Dictionary’s definition of chitlin tells you all you need to know: “Pig intestines, smells bad.” Defying all expectations, our ‘picky’ son is the only one who can stomach the fried delicacy…

stepping

Locals of all ages get up on their feet to enjoy a dance.

We sit upwind of the unique and unforgettable smell coming from the kitchen and enjoy over an hour of Bluegrass music. Banjo player and Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, Gary Crenshaw, chats with us backstage as he tunes up. The humidity makes perfect pitch a constant challenge, he says. Gary invites us to his next solo concert in December.

cash

This smartly-dressed local make an early reservation in front of the stage.

A couple of weeks later we bundle up against the cold and drive 45 minutes to Gray, GA, venue of America’s second largest chainsaw carving event: Chaptacular. This annual fundraiser for cystic fibrosis research attracts heavy-duty carvers from all over the country, from New York State to New Mexico. We wander through the old pecan grove to watch timed competitions and marvel at the items for sale, all carved using power tools.

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An inclusive art: a wheelchair user and two women are amongst the many competitors.

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Craftsmen at work.

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This bear family carved into a huge log is probably our favourite. Many newly carved items are auctioned off for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

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A local teenager, Charlie, has been carving for just a handful of weeks.

bear!

What can be scarier than a seven foot grizzly? A grizzly with an AR-15!

Finally, last Sunday we return to Maranatha Baptist Church, Plains, and President Carter’s Sunday School. We continue to be amazed at how many Georgians are unaware of Jimmy Carter’s unique and intimate Sunday ritual.

Mr J and a fellow Royal Air Force officer are in uniform for a belated Remembrance Sunday ceremony. They stand to attention when the former president enters the sanctuary and each is asked by President Carter where they are stationed and in what role.

Mr Jimmy

President Carter may be losing some of his hearing but is otherwise in incredible shape for 93.

Rosalyn Carter quietly takes a seat two rows behind us. I could almost reach out and touch her… except the church is peppered with secret service agents! The Carters themselves have an air of informality – although in true Southern style Rosalyn Carter looks as polished and radiant today as she did back in the ’70s.

President Carter’s Sunday School is delivered from a personal perspective and he uses vocabulary to include of all God’s children: man, woman, Jew, Muslim and Christian. Rosalyn calls out from just behind us to remind her husband that there is a Syrian refugee in the congregation. We welcome him with polite applause. There are also a number a of Central and South American students visiting from Fort Rucker, Alabama. An Argentine Captain, born around the year of the Falklands’ invasion, is the one student to come over and chat with Mr J and his colleague. The gesture is appreciated.

After lunch with Maranatha church stalwarts, Miss Jan and Mr George, we head to Oak Grove Cemetery, Americus. Here we commemorate the life of Clarence Johnson, a British trainee pilot who died far from home in 1942. We are joined at the graveside by three representatives of the US Air Force, plus Adrian, the daughter of a local Vietnam Vet who helped us find Clarence’s War Commission grave in 2014.

It is a corner of a foreign field that is forever England.

We formally hand over our annual remembrance of Clarence’s ultimate sacrifice to a new British military family; letting go of one of the many rituals we have established during our posting… The next six months will see us letting go of more rituals as we prepare to return to the UK.

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

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Spray on cheese

punks

The clan’s tartan redefined

Over the past few weeks, moved by events such as the shooting in Las Vegas in which 58 concert-goers were killed by a man armed with 23 guns, I have sat down to express a British perspective on our posting in America.

It has been a struggle to find the words.

The aim of my blog has always been to give a carefully considered record of my experiences Stateside… During the last year I have found my core beliefs increasingly at odds with the political zeitgeist, and I have self-censored my views. Not just on responsible gun control, but other topics close to my heart, such as climate change, universal healthcare and reproductive rights, and gender identity… to name but a few.

As a pilgrim of Cheddar Gorge, England, I find I can speak candidly about spray on cheese – a topic mooted by my rather incredulous son this morning. Reader, cheese is not meant to be sprayed. Period. There, I’ve said it. At least I have the guts to stick my head above the cheese snack sauce parapet.

America is a democracy. The bedrock of capitalism. The land of the brave… where, if spray on cheese is sold it is your right to use it. As abhorrent as it sounds to me, brother and sister, you have the freedom to believe spray on cheese is okay, if not ‘great’.

Of course, spray on cheese is just a metaphor for all the things that upset my spiritual equilibrium…

Even last weekend’s decision to enjoy some Celtic culture at the 40th annual Highland Games is tinged with politics. The games’ venue, Stone Mountain – immortalised in Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech – is also known as the Confederate Mount Rushmore. Happily, this all-things-Scottish besotted crowd –  unsurprisingly 99.99% caucasian – is convivial and welcoming to all: sporran or no sporran.

drummerThe vibrancy of the gathering is contagious.

As summer turns to autumn I urge you to get out there and do something different, to push your boundaries and see things from a different perspective. That is what our posting offers me, and I am grateful for it…

spectacle

500 pipers and drummers join together from as far as Texas to experience both the competition and the camaraderie of the Highland Games

kilts

Some serious kilt styling

wee dram

Just a wee dram…

 

carving

We can all agree with this sentiment…

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

Coincidence is a cuss word

aftermath

After Hurricane Irma blows through our children enjoy the easing rain – and set about rescuing some of the thousands of earth worms being washed away down the storm drains.

Despite Hurricane Irma‘s wrath (30 hours without power and a roughed up garden) it seems nothing can stand in the way of ticking off my 17th state: Louisiana. Yes, I am on my way to my second Southern Independent Booksellers Association annual shindig, this time in New Orleans.

For literature lovers, SIBA’s three day event is like sitting at all-you-can-eat sushi conveyor belt of books.

causeway

All is calm off the causeway into New Orleans.

NOLA copy

We spot SIBA’s venue as we exit the I-10 for the Superdrome and Canal St.

I am grateful to join my friends Mr and Mrs A – veteran SIBA volunteers – on their eight hour drive to the ‘Big Easy’. Crocheting, tic-tacs, and pancakes from Burger King (3 for 89c) break up the monotony. I know we have broken the back of our four-states odyssey when we climb the elevated causeway across the now-familiar swamps of Mississippi – Mr J and I drove part of this route two Christmases ago.

Route I10

An impressive road system crosses the swamps of Mississippi.

I am delighted to see familiar faces from last year’s SIBA team: Jim and Justine; Chuck; Steve-and-Frank (or is it Frank-and-Steve?); Barb, Carolyn, Chris, and the rest of the Anderson dynasty…

I am also delighted to be back in the author’s pre-signing room. Here, I help unload boxes of ARCs (advance reading copies) and/or first editions, all to be signed by their authors, re-packed, and transported to events around the hotel where they are handed out to independent booksellers from all over the South. Our days are long but there is bottomless coffee and a challenging array of spicy cajun-style kettle chips keep us going.

As guest speaker Rick Bragg muses off the cuff at a very early Sunday morning breakfast, Southern authors “leave words sticking in your head like fish hooks.” (Rick has such a way with words, and only swears perhaps once or twice…) I have the pleasure of meeting established writers as diverse as Wiley Cash, Radney Foster, Robert Beatty and Judy Schachner, plus debut authors Simeon Marsalis and Quvenzhané Wallis (14).

Mr Bragg also states that New Orleans is the kind of city where, “you wake up on your back… under a pool table… with your shirt smelling suspiciously ofMidnight In Paris'”. With my work ethic, I barely get to leave the hotel. My experience of NOLA is reflected in my conservative choice of souvenir magnet: yes, I stood on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal, but didn’t have time to venture in. As the truism goes, if you remember New Orleans, you really weren’t there..

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So, I return from New Orleans with an uncommon clarity of recollection – but with an armful of signed books made more precious by memories of their authors.

Mr Bragg also leaves an impression on my whole family after being inadvertently sucked into my regular Sunday morning conference call to family. When I tell him I am calling my parents in England, Mr Bragg says he will be travelling there soon and can encroach on their hospitality? His says his needs are simple: “that cheese… that stilton cheese they sell in a pot in Harrods.” Your guest room is ready, sir.

Finally, I cannot wrap up my account to SIBA without mentioning Curt Isles. We find ourselves seated next to each other at one of the busy dinners – and discovered we have a rare life experience in common: South Sudan. Curt was there on mission work in 2013 – a decade after my fact-finding trip with the Irish charity Concern.

Curt has recalled his three years in South Sudan in a memoire called Trampled Grass. He tells me his book title draws a parallel between waring bull elephants and the devastating struggle for power in South Sudan. We were both asked not to be forgotten by the people we met – and Curt urges me to dig out my journal and interviews and share my stories too.

When I suggest that our meeting was a coincidence Curt’s eyes twinkle, “For a Christian, coincidence is a cuss word.”

So, Curt, here is one of my interviews; it is with a Dinka lady from Yirol, aptly named America:

“Earlier we were having a big problem getting water. People had to walk two hours going and coming back – so a trip of five hours. Sometimes not even five hours, because you’d find a queue where you went for water and you would have to wait. Sometimes you would have to sleep there, or come back in the morning…

You have to leave your children in the house – in a high-up room (traditional Tukul hut is built on stilts). And if there is no one taking care of them they sometimes fall and break a leg or an arm – because there is no big person around. This has happened while mothers collected water from far areas.

But now there is a big difference because the water is close to our house and we’ll be able to collect water very near. We’ll be able to do other jobs which we were not able to do before. We will be able to improve our lives by cultivating more land and other household tasks which were hindered by water-collection only. Now it is better and we’ll improve our lives.

Water is the source of everything – since we have water now we have life.

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

Bracing for Hurricane Irma

Irma Ready

We drink three sodas a day until someone says “storm“, and then we’re fish!” The cashier at my local supermarket jovially quotes a previous customer. There may still be water on the shelves today – but there is a gaping hole on the shop floor where palettes of bottled water are usually stacked.

There is no air of panic buying yet. And by glancing in a few sample shopping carts this morning I can report that beer, wine and spirits are taking precedence over water.

Water is the last thing to go,” chips in a gentleman in the checkout queue, sagely recalling the flood of 1994. To be fair, Tropical Storm Alberto did leave the whole county without water for nearly three weeks…. There were riots elsewhere. Today our city’s water plant is located on higher ground.

I heed the flurry of emails from our insurance companies and Mr J’s work to be prepared: I buy 8 one gallon bottles of water. We already have some emergency beer:

beers_sm

With four days to go before Hurricane Irma can touch middle Georgia I see my first ever Red Cross truck. The Navy, Marines and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) have already moved onto Mr J’s base. Aircraft are being flown out to free up hanger space. All of Macon’s hotels were booked out several days ago. In fact, there is hardly a hotel room to be found between here and Tennessee. Two evacuation shelters are opening up in town, including one just for evacuated pets. We are asked to keep the main evacuation routes clear of local traffic…

Key West

Sigsbee RV Park, Naval Air Base Key West; an artist sets up outside Ernest Hemmingway’s house; bijou island cottage.

I leave you with a few photos from our wonderful stay in Key West last December. We are thinking of everyone who have been evacuated from The Keys, the state of Florida, and Georgia’s beautiful coastline. And of course we cannot forget the residents of Houston, Texas, who are still in great distress two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall…

very sad

My daughter expresses her feelings after hearing news on the radio of six members of one family drowning in a van in Houston, TX. Only driver, the great uncle, makes it to safety.

The rule of thumb here is you don’t have to worry until a news reporter turns up in your neighbourhood… Wish us luck on Tuesday.

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

Totality fun in north Georgia

beacon

There is a party atmosphere amongst campers at Top of Georgia Airstream Park

If a total eclipse isn’t surreal enough we watch it surrounded by Airstreams – capsules of riveted aluminium, glinting in the intensifying light like a homing beacon to extra terrestrials.

We have had to travel almost two miles for every second of total eclipse we witness. And that 1 minute 40 seconds goes so fast! However, it is worth the journey to the uppermost corner of north Georgia to have this experience of a lifetime as a family. And while most of our fellow Airstream enthusiasts are Georgia-based members of the Wally Byam Caravan Club, the young family opposite prepped their new-to-them ’75 camper in just one month to travel all the way from Virginia…

darkness falls

Darkness falls at half past one in the afternoon…

The difference between 1999’s partial eclipse in the UK and this week’s total eclipse is – if you’ll pardon the pun – the difference between night and day. I capture the dramatic transition from partial eclipse to totality on video as my children’s awe-struck faces are plunged into near darkness.

Seconds before, I take just one photo of the fast-growing gloom (above), determined to put down my camera and be in the moment. This is harder for my son, who jumps up and announces he is going to find some art materials and draw the total eclipse! I tell him there is not enough time…

In the blink of an eye the sun breaks free of the moon and we put our eclipse glasses back on. The total eclipse is over – but the party continues amongst the park’s Airstream-owning community as we share slices of water melon and trailer maintenance tips.

2 generations

New or vintage, Airstreams have a unique and arguably ageless charm.

We wander to the far end of the park-in-the-valley where we hear rumour of an amateur astronomer. Bruce generously shares both his photographs from his camera and live images through his specially-adapted telescope.

cresecents

There are different ways to appreciate the eclipse after totality: Rod shows us how to use binoculars and card; in Bruce’s kitchen we see the emerging sun on the countertop.

 

All too soon it is time to pack up our camper and say goodbye to our new friends.

It is hard not to fall in love with Top of Georgia Airstream Park and the gentle stream where our son tries fly fishing for the first time under the guidance of fellow camper, Mike. We also love visiting Tommy again, the miller at Nora Mills Granary, who remembers our kids from last spring.

flies

Our son’s first attempt at fly fishing is a lesson in patience!

rock shop

(R) The proprietor aged 21, c.1976; (C) his Rock Shop on GA-75; (L) the shop’s cat makes a unconventional appearance through the ceiling.

Aside our precious memories, I return home with another beautiful piece from The Willows Pottery – a place zen reigns. I am told my salt-glazed bowl will last until the earth takes it back into it’s fiery folds… just as long as I don’t drop it.

craters

With it’s creamy, cratered surface, this bowl will always remind me of the day the sun was eclipsed by the moon in Georgia.

We use local knowledge to beat most of the tourist traffic clogging the mountain roads. As we tire on our marathon return journey Mr J and I agree this amazing experience has been ‘educational’ enough to justify the long drive and a day out of school. In England, our children’s absence from class would be breaking the law… This only serves to remind us to squeeze every last drop of fun out of our dwindling posting to America’s Deep South!

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

 

Taking the high road

crooked path

A very different landscape: Mr J fossil hunts with our friends in Maryland.

The children went back to school last week. Finally, a moment to reflect on the dying days of their summer break…

Firstly, preparation for our most ambitious road trip to date gets off to an inauspicious start with our Chevi Suburban spending a whole week at the mechanics.

Our Chevi has almost become an extended member of our family, and like many 17 year olds is increasingly expensive to maintain. Funnily enough, the mechanic called out last year to jump start the battery cheerfully stated that, at 250,000 miles, we were just “breaking it in…” Having spent the equivalent of a ‘new car’ on our children’s schools fees this month we have to hope he is right.

One day later the Chevi’s radiator explodes towing our Airstream home from a fruitless pre-trip service (not surprisingly, spare parts are hard to find for a 45 year old caravan). Now, with just 24 hours until departure, we scramble to find a radiator specialist open on a Saturday. Thank you Mr Smith!

With a sense of déjà-vous we embark on a 2,000 mile round trip to see our friends in Maryland with no hot water and no air conditioning in our camper. It is an uncomfortable re-run of last August’s Florida turtle-hatching adventure, only this time we are heading north.

Day One: We camp in beautiful north Georgia, and cross the following morning into North Carolina near Cherokee, the home of the Cherokee people. We pay to visit to their Oconaluftee Village, where a mature 15 year old Logan walks us through a number of traditional craft demonstrations: weaving, beading, pottery, carving and weapon-making. I ask if Logan’s school incorporates local Cherokee culture, like playing stickball, into the curriculum. It does not. However, two weeks ago Logan picked up a blowgun for the first time and it turns out he is a bit of a hot shot. Logan really wants to get out of North Carolina and get into acting…

cherokee

Cherokee comes across as is a static representation of a former nation. It leaves me wondering what kind of future our guide Logan and his peers can look forward to.

After Cherokee we pick up the 469 mile long Blue Ridge Parkway – and soon spot our first wild black bear, ambling across the road in broad daylight. Mr J is thrilled. Master J is asleep.

Another abiding memory from this 30-mile section of our trip is the thousands of Red-spotted Purple butterflies fluttering in the dappled sunlight on the roadside, or lying dead on the tarmac. When we park up at the numerous scenic spots in the mountains our children cradle dead and dying butterflies by the handful.

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After almost setting our breaks on fire on our precarious descent from the Parkway’s 5000ft peaks, Mr J quickly learns to drive our automatic in manual gear! When the (literal) smoke clears we have missed our planned campsite’s 8pm curfew… Just another anecdote to add to our growing list of Airstream mini-adventures.

blueridge

Enjoying another amazing view on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

With my role as Chief Trip Planner falling at the end of a long summer keeping the little ones happy I decide to indulge my own interests en route. My daughter thinks I am joking when I state we will call in on north Georgia’s artisan potters, Asheville’s excellent Folk Art Centre, and Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

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Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is well worth a visit – and general admission is free.

We could have spent a whole day at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. However, with our tight schedule we can only squeeze in a guided tour of the largest public collection of Fabergé outside Russia, briefly admire the sculpture garden, and spend an hour in the polished Yves Saint Laurent special exhibition – which is free with our military ID.

I only wish our 7 year old daughter, with her natural flare for crafting headwear from paper and footwear from kitchen foil, was more impressed by Yves’ creative genius… She is not. She is tired and bored.

cutout

As a teenager Yves Saint Laurent used models cut from magazines to show off his fashion creations.

Day Six: We make it to California… California, Maryland, that is. The next day we drive to Washington D.C. with our Canadian friends and split team: dads/kids/Botanic Garden; mums/no-kids/The National Art Gallery. Mrs F and I enjoy several hours of light-hearted art critiquing, resulting in the idea of a layman’s guide to modern art with the working title: ‘Would You Use It To Fix A Broken Window?

Dubuffet

I enjoyed the detail of this oil painting by Jean Dubuffet. “Preserves of Matter and Light (Texturology LIII)” 1958

portraits

A few of my favourite female portraits. I apologise for not noting titles and artists…

cakes and frogs copy

I take some pictures to show my children, after all, what child does not like cake and toads?

Our friends have three teenagers at home these days. Teenagers = free babysitting.

The grown ups sneak out for a matinee showing of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk‘.We come back moved, and slightly disorientated that it still only mid afternoon…

After lots of late night board games with cocktails (adults), fossil-hunting and Lego-making (adults and children), and family day trips to Baltimore and Fort McHenry – home of the original ‘Star Spangled Banner’ – it is time to say goodbye for another two or three years and head back to Georgia with our lobster-flavoured potato crisps.

barns

I add to a few more painted barns to my collection.

We travel via Charlottesville to visit nearby Monticello, home of the third American President, Thomas Jefferson. On the Slavery at Monticello Tour my daughter asks why the man who stated “all men are created equal” had 200 enslaved people on his plantation? I can see her social conscience developing before my eyes. A week later, a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville will result in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer – and ignite a debate on America’s complicated past and its ongoing divisions.

Travelling with two young children in a 25′ travel trailer is no bed of roses, especially when one of your children has ADHD. However we do manage to tick off a pretty idyllic-sounding list of experiences: Old Winston-Salem, buying ‘mint’ Thomas Jefferson $2 bills (for $2), camp fire making, rainbow trout feeding, bison watching, butterfly collecting, extensive bottle cap collecting, lake fishing, moonlit frog hunting, flint knapping, hoop-rolling, and miniature train and pedal boat riding at the 5th oldest amusement park in America…

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Petersburg Campground Usace, a US Corps of Engineers campsite near Augusta, GA.

I hope in years to come our children will look back on this trip – possibly the last road trip we’ll ever take on our posting – and agree that we are one very fortunate family.

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

A balancing act

stones

The High Divers, a band from South Carolina, play ‘Second Sunday’ on Coleman Hill: Miss J is diverted by balancing stones on the footpath

Three months is a quarter of a year or, on average, 90 days. Two months into a three-month-long summer holiday can be expressed as 66.66%. If a mother spends four hours a day encouraging her children to complete one hour’s worth of journal writing and maths, how many hours are unproductive and needlessly frustrating? Times that number by seven days a week. Times that answer by twelve weeks. If a day is 24 hours long, how many days in total has the mother spent needlessly frustrated? Express that as a percentage of her year.

Reader, our school holidays Stateside are simply too long – unless you are some kind of saint, of course. I begin to see our holiday – not to mention my life – expressed as one big maths problem…

Mummy_0717

My daughter’s Picasso-like sketch captures ‘me’ beautifully.

Fearing ‘The Summer Slide‘ (academic regression) Mr J and I work doggedly on reading, writing and arithmetic with our two children. Our return next year to the UK’s more rigorous National Curriculum makes the summer slide more troubling. We devour box-loads of books from the library, and pick out our free book from completed summer reading schemes. I incorporate maths into our grocery shopping, pizza cutting, and Master J’s ‘golf ball business plan’. Car rides create a captive audience for number bonds and times tables.

However, it takes a balance of discipline and freedom to get through a school break this long, so we also: paint and draw; photograph our hummingbirds; practice our golf swing; horse ride; swim; and even spot President Trumps’ Air Force One alongside the airfield on squadron Family Day…

It has been a busy summer for the tooth fairy too.

My daughter loses two front teeth in close succession, just like the same milk teeth cut through. Then my son needs a tooth extracted for his orthodontic work. Before his appointment we have a few minutes to spare and so check in on the restoration of Little Richard’s childhood home at its new location on Craft Street in downtown Macon. I don’t see Russ, the project’s manager, but work is coming along nicely with completed crawl space and new roof beams.

before and after

Facing up bravely to minor surgery, Master J insists that he doesn’t want any money from the tooth fairy. A tooth extraction is apparently ‘cheating’. He leaves her a note to that effect. The tooth fairy slips a book under his pillow instead:

book

I’m not sure the book covers meticulously checking bubble gum machine change slots… This habit won’t make my son a millionaire but does bring a wealth of excitement; this week the penny counting machine at the supermarket yields a rejected One Cent, dating from 1919.

1919 coin

Part of my balancing act is to squeeze in the odd date night with Mr J. Tonight I am bringing together Mr J, friends and neighbours, to watch a Special Screening of Brave New Jersey. But first I have to prep the house for the babysitter, make dinner, and of course find a few minutes to get ready for my hot date. Wish me luck with that! I hope to report back on the opening night of the Macon Film Festival next week. Until then, I wish you luck with your own balancing act.

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

Regime change

sm_bug

Harold Nicholson’s writing desk in the gardens of Sissinghurst, Kent.

I am flying solo, bound for Britain, my second trip home alone in four years. Last February’s visit was to help my sister prepare for her wedding, this time I am looking at schools for our return posting.

Firstly though, I head to Yorkshire, to my best friend who I have not seen in two years.

Like the trainspotters at Leeds station, I find myself recording every detail of my journey into the heart of ‘God’s own country‘. From the gaggle of boys splashing in the river and waving at our carriages, to passengers exchanging ‘ey-ups’, to the Victorian waiting room at Shipley with its original fire place and curved wooden benches, I take it all in like a complete tourist.

Shipley

The station’s cafe, ‘Just The Ticket’, serves bacon rolls, tea cake and hot chocolate.

While the weathered Yorkshire stone buildings, pub grub and canal boats are quintessentially British, weather-wise I could be back in America’s Deep South. Temperatures in England top 30˚ for five consecutive days.

Predictably, the air conditioning on my train up from London is not working. It is still not working two days later when I head back south… My carefully curated travel ‘capsule wardrobe’ works around jeans, cowboy boots and a faux red leather jacket; an indication that a heatwave hotter than Georgia, was unexpected

I soldier on.

In my jeans.

I enjoy the small changes in regime: English honey on toast for breakfast, a constant supply of hot tea and – most notably – adult company during the day.

After a tearful farewell to my best friend, I meet up with my father in Lincolnshire. He will be my chauffeur and surveillant for the next three days; as a school governor he has done his homework on Special Educational Needs compliance for his grandson. Together we visit a perplexing array of seven schools.

My dad is a ‘shirt, tie and jacket’ kind of gentleman. I support his over-dressed-code with my own, apparently en vogue, ‘modest‘ ensemble. Monday is so hot our hotel’s fuse box to bursts into flames…

icecreams

SOLD OUT! Demand for ice cream outstrips supply at this motorway service station.

 

Wednesday is warmest June day since 1976. I remember that summer well: the fields turned to bare cracked earth and the ladybirds turned to humans for succor… None of the schools we visit have a hot weather dress code – an oversight highlighted in the national press by a cohort of boys in Devon, who swap their trousers for skirts in a protest against their school’s ‘no shorts’ policy.

allotment2

These allotments bring back memories of playing with my sister on dad’s allotment in the 70s.

I spend the last three days of my trip with my parents in Kent. They have their own regime and I synchronise without too much effort: newspapers at breakfast, left-overs and salad at lunchtime, ‘meat and two veg’ at dinner, and the News at Ten

I stock up on Marks and Spencer underwear, attend the funeral of an old friend’s father, and enjoy a day out with my folks at Sissinghurst – former home of Vita Sackville-West and now a National Trust property. Here, one can indulge in pure Englishness: crumbling Tudor brickwork, a boat house on a moat, rambling roses, Irish linen tea towels and local fudge in the gift shop, and pots of tea in the shade of Kentish oast houses.

vistas

Sissinghurst’s famous garden makes this one of my favourite National Trust properties.

trio

It is all in the detail: colour-coded canes; wonky sign; a wall of plant labels.

All too soon it is time to leave one home for another. Over the next 24 hours I experience several moments of utter confusion over which continent I am on…

London has endured a turbulent few months, but the unique spirit of Londoners – epitomised by The Blitz – is still palpable amongst the capital’s ever-diversifying population. ‘Thank you‘ to the stranger who stopped to help me with my heavy suitcase as I head to Heathrow airport…

Stateside, I breeze through border control in the Diplomat queue and am soon greeted Mr J, plus two happy children with four limbs apiece. There has been a quiet revolution in my absence: their day now starts with some yoga stretches, and includes chores and strictly enforced literacy and numeracy sessions, broken up with basketball breaks. My son shoots five hoops on our neighbour’s drive!

As a military spouse, regime change is ever present. The sense of impermanence never really goes away; it drives us to make the most of the roots we put down, and to be mentally and physically prepared to uproot at short notice. If this summer’s trip is a taste of the regime change to come it simply confirms – despite the battles ahead for decent schools and housing – that it will be good to be heading home.

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Oast houses were used to dry hops for beer making; few Kentish ‘hop gardens’ remain.

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The Road Goes on Forever

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Cher attends Greg Allman’s funeral in Macon, GA.

It is impossible this week to avoid mention of current events back home. Last Saturday’s horrific terrorist attack on pedestrians and diners in the heart of London releases a wave of stoic unity in Britain. Last night’s general election results show a country in deep political divide…

Mr J and I have a sense of being on the outside looking in in horror – like an out of body experience. We know the UK we return to next year will not feel like the country we left in 2013. We can only trust our difficult transition will be eased by much-missed comfort food: fish and chips, British curries, and steam pudding and custard…

Thousands of miles from England, a live radio broadcast from the James Comey Congressional Hearing leaves me enthralled. It is the candid testimony from America’s former FBI boss that I will remember from this week in politics. A possible “where were you?” moment…

Last Saturday heralds a sad moment in Southern Rock history – the funeral of Greg Allman. Greg is laid to rest next to his brother, Duane, who died in 1971 while the Allman Brothers Band were living in the Big House in Macon.

By the entrance to Rose Hill Cemetery a lone piper plays Amazing Grace. There is a higher than average display of mushroom iconography, long beards and greying pony tails in the crowd. As the funeral procession passes through the gates peace signs are exchanged between limos and onlookers.

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Surviving band member, Jaimoe, gives a peace sign to his fans.

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View over Rose Hill Cemetery, and a fan’s tribute: ‘The Road Goes On Forever’.

I bumped into Greg Allman at a special screening of ‘Amy’ (Winehouse) in Macon, in 2015. I’m standing behind a vaguely familiar looking man at the concessions stand. He’s sporting a Big House t-shirt and a white ponytail. A young man asks for some Reeces (peanut butter and chocolate sweets) and the older man turns and jokingly says, “I thought he said reefers.” Yeah, that was Greg.

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Frog in Pink Bucket

Yesterday demanded a visit downtown to check on the tadpoles at Washington Park and the Hollywood film crew at City Hall. The tadpoles beat the movie set hands down in terms of entertainment. The kids have learned that froglets are fast and film shoots are slow!

 

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Macon has provided backdrops to numerous films.

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Local extras take up position as civil rights era potesters outside City Hall.

Summer’s Mix Tape

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Swimming lessons from a 7 year old perspective.

With the 50th anniversary of ‘Sgt Pepper’ my kids are listening to some of most iconic tracks of the c.20th in dripping wet bathing suits. This is the stuff childhood memories are made of…

Or it should be.

What my children actually remember of this summer is anyone’s guess.

Growing up in the 1970s, my own childhood was heavily influenced by my mother’s Beatles cassette tape, and swimming lessons in the frigid sea off Sussex in late summer. My children have been raised on a Patsy Cline Live at The Opry cassette tape* and barmy temperatures that support unheated training pools in May.

*We Brits run the oldest vehicles in car pool: our teenage babysitter paid ten times more for her Toyota than Mr J paid for his Mercedes, and if our Chevi Suburban was a PC it would still be running Windows 2000. Consequently, our offspring have spent the last four summers listening to tapes that time forgot -like Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, with ‘They’re Hanging Me Tonight’ providing road trip pure gold.

Of course, I could really mess with their young minds by encouraging them to create mix tapes on my c.1984 Philips cassette recorder…

However, some things are better timeless – like the simple joy of swimming, a big box of books from the library, and pond dipping.

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Free entertainment at the park: catch and release tadpoles; we will return in a week to see if any have grown legs.

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Following our picnic in the park, my experience as an art director comes in handy as I run through all the photographer’s equipment with my curious daughter.

Our three month long holiday (trans. summer vacation) gets off to a great start with free-flowing journal entries and a positive attitude towards long division. Reader, I will take my holiday-tutoring wins one day at a time.

Summer is a time to reconnect with my fast-growing children, unencumbered by the daily grind of term time routine. I put aside the daily grind of our posting’s admin for expressive painting sessions and smoothie recipe experiments.

“Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes
And she’s gone”

Childhood is fleeting. The summer is long. What tracks, in years to come, would my children choose for their Summer of 2017 mix tape?

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Getting creative with Jenga, shadows, and poster paint.

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