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The weather is back to chilly, like it was 8 months ago on that Canadian Sunday night when we discovered that there was a third of us in the making. The full cycle is almost complete and he’s now ready to land on firm ground after months of growing, kicking, hiccupping and moving around with little notion of gravity. We don’t know much about him or when he will be here, and this mystery adds to the excitement of welcoming him to his new world.

Here are a few things we know about him however; he hates the beeps at the supermarket tills, same for Beck, but enjoys reggae a lot, and he’s long and lean according to the midwife.

As I was showing the nursery in progress to Ed the other day, he said that it was like waiting for a very special guest, like David Bowie. I’m still trying to make sense of the comparison, but I think you really need to be an Englishman to understand it fully. Anyway, our own little glam rock star will arrive in a week or so and his new quarters are now ready. The bags are packed and I’ve prepared his very first outfit, with his first woolen hat and his spaceship pyjamas, Petit Bateau evidemment.

The tiny outfit has pockets, I know they are purely for style and cuteness, but what if one wanted to take this feature seriously? What would we put in his pockets? his oyster card? the keys to his crib? who knows… I’ve put his socks in there so they don’t get lost in the bag.

While he was growing, a lot of things happened. We got married on a sunny June day. Despite the Dallas-style drama that surrounded the wedding, we spent a wonderful time with the lovely people who surrounded us with much love, kindness and marvellous attentions. We laughed a lot with our wonderful European friends and family who stayed with us for a few days. In the end, this will be the memory I will cherish most in the years to come.

Ed started his job right after this and our quest for a new nest could finally begin. It started with St Albans, which had a lot to offer but the housing market was rather hectic. We then tried Bath which proved very frustrating on many levels. Finally, Ed suggested Oxford, and after a few twists, we finally settled here, on Osney Island, which consists of three streets hugged by the river on one side and the canal on the other. It makes the place especially quiet and cosy.

Maybe deceitfully so.

We were slightly alarmed by criminality at the beginning -and I had lived in some dodgy areas in Paris, where stabbing happened in broad day light. Posters indicated that the place was not what it seemed, and I instantly felt like in the midst of one of the most terrifying episodes of Wallace and Gromit. One poster exposed the ongoing milk theft on Bridge street, and it deterred the criminal by warning that surveillance was now in place. Another poster with the picture of a grey tabby moggy called Toby, appealed to the residents of the island to call if they saw him.

Now, I’m not a crime expert, but it doesn’t really take much logical thinking to link the two together. Toby wherever you are, next bottle is on me!

We’ve adjusted really well to Oxford now, and what is there not to like? In many respects, it’s just perfect, especially with a little Ziggy Stardust coming soon. It’s a foodies and walkers heaven. Endless walks in the countryside and by the canals and rivers are on offer. Also, there is lots of foraging, pick your own, farmer’s market action going on here. This year is probably the best we’ve eaten in a long time. After much struggle in Canada, with lack of cheese and the price of food, this spring and summer, we ate mostly, seasonal, local, organic, home-grown food. And it keeps on coming as Ed brought 5 kilos of apples yesterday, but he’s come back from work with all kinds of fresh goodies over the last few months; from prize-winning beetroots, to giant marrows, quinces, blackberries, plums, etc. This was great timing as I was eating for two this year: this baby’s developing taste buds have been spoilt.

There will be more good food to come very soon when our little astronaut finishes his trip in space oddity. I already find myself drooling in front of the cheese section at the supermarket. Yesterday, I stared at a Reblochon so intensely that some shoppers seemed a bit spooked. Carla Bruni gave birth a few days ago, not that anyone really cares, it seems. The Guardian pointed out that she must be relieved since in a recent interview she confessed she couldn’t wait to get over pregnancy and be able to drink and smoke again. In my case, it will be all about Serrano ham, blue cheese, raw fish and poached eggs buried in hollandaise sauce.

But I’m in no rush, after more than 8 months, I can wait another week or two for our intergalactic guest to land.

Ground control to Major Tom…

I feel quite bad that I’ve neglected my poor Budgie lately. Things have been rather busy since our return to the green pastures of La Perfide Albion.
Let me recap a bit as some of you might have missed an installment in our adventures, and this might be because I haven’t written about it yet in these pages. I started my teacher training at the end of January, two weeks after Ed lost his first job in Canada. Things were difficult and tense, not exactly the way we envisaged them. Our undying enthusiasm started wavering at this point of the journey, but we were determined to make it work, maybe so not to see all of our precious efforts there go to waste.

Sabrina (foreground) and Carla

On the 20th of February, I was sitting in the most entertaining anatomy workshop. In between the ankle joint and the metatarsals, I turned to my friend Sabrina and whispered ; ‘I think I’m pregnant’. Sabrina’s face was suddenly illuminated by her unique smile. Sabrina is Swiss German and aside from being a dedicated yogi, she’s a caterer, a surfer, a snowboarder but above all she’s the mother of two beautiful children. She was really excited by the idea and motherhood and pregnancy are among her favourite subjects.

That evening I took the test which immediately confirmed my suspicions. The following week, Ed and I had a lot of thinking to do: fast. His new job situation was precarious, I had no status in Canada, and hence no health insurance. After a couple of days of deliberation, we came to the wise conclusion that we had to head back to England. At the beginning we felt that we had been forced to give up ‘the dream’. Gradually though, as we were planning our return back to the UK, we started realising that the excitement was building: we were going to see our friends and family again, get married, eat good and affordable food, have more sunshine, but most importantly we’d have our first child, and that beat ‘the dream’ everytime.

I finished my teacher training with heavy pregnancy symptoms, helped by the reassuring words of Sabrina. A week after graduating from yoga school, we said goodbye to our friends and the wonderful yogi bunch, and took a plane back to England.

My story and I stand with it, is that Ed paid excess luggage fees because of that can opener that he refused to leave behind. I sneaked in a third passenger in the tiny pouch that had just starting showing. Women just know how to pack and that’s all I’m going to say about this!

England felt incredibly sweet and warm after months in rainy, cold, expensive Vancouver. My first trip to Waitrose could have been produced by Disney, as I walked along the aisles, eyes wide open like Alice in Carroll’s classic. When you’re a foodie in North America, all the bravery in the world won’t make up for all the pleasures lost.

Soon enough, we were able to meet and speak with our friends and this made home feel like home again. Three weeks have passed since we left the shores of British Columbia and we’ve had action packed days. We’ve moved temporarily into Ed’s parents second house in Essex, and we’re planning our wedding, going to doctor’s appointments, and looking for jobs.

Last week I saw the third passenger for the first time, in black and white swimming around his tiny pool. It was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. He gave us a thumb up, signalling that everything was fine in his little galaxy.

Life otherwise has been weirdly bucolic in this corner of the English countryside. Each night we’re going to sleep to the sound of an owl and each morning Jumbo, the nasty and neurotic cockerel, sings his almost mechanical tune incessantly. The never- ending bird saga in front of our kitchen doors is comical and has replaced TV. We’ve seen new-born chicks, but also Bumble the dog running away with a chicken in her mouth and being chased by Jumbo, we shower the white ducks from time to time with the hose. We go for walks with Bumble to see the foal and his friendly mum in the adjacent field, and we feed them carrots and parsnips.

Also I’m cooking again after weeks of morning sickness and this is probably the most amazing kitchen I’ve cooked in. Next week I’ll spend a week in Normandy by the seaside at a friend’s place and when I return. we’ll finish the wedding preparations and if Jumbo keeps on harassing our duck friends, it will be coq-au-vin on the menu.

Friends here often ask us how it feels to be back. Even if everything is still temporary and we don’t know where we will live next, things seem easier. Our Canadian escape made us appreciate all the good things here, and we’ve come back calmer and more grateful, and for that it was worth going, that and the excess luggage.

Bumble

After months of roaming and pondering in this adventure, we have finally decided to go back home, for good – well, for a while at least – to be reunited with Budgie, but more importantly with family, friends, Bumble the dog, and good old Blighty.

We’ve taken this decision for various reasons and we’re really happy about it now. It’s funny how you try really hard to make something work and when you stop struggling and you finally surrender, liberation follows. Up to one week ago, we were still quite sad to see the Canadian experience end, but now we are really excited to leave. Our life is no longer here.

We came to admit also that we might not have been able to enjoy it eternally. Something is missing: another dimension. I felt the same in California. A sense of emptiness. It took me a lot of time to realise what was bothering me. It’s so much easier to react against things that are ever too present, jarring or downright irritating, but this particular vacuity is trickier to capture with thoughts. It’s a vague, lingering sensation. California felt like living on a movie set, and it’s not that much different here.

Crow

Our friend Graham who is also going back to England soon, discussed it with Ed the other day, and it was the little epiphany I needed about this place. It is so beautiful that you would feel really ungrateful to resent its flaws. Beauty in that respect can be incredibly intimidating. Doesn’t one feel a bit more shy when they meet a really good looking person? You almost hope you belong to their club somehow. It’s absurd but it’s a common impulse.

The same happened for us in Vancouver, it’s so beautiful that you want to be a part of it. However this has a price, the real estate is unaffordable, the general cost of life is prohibitive, and the job situation is scarily unstable. Testament to its charms, people are still ready to make the sacrifice, for the sake of enjoying the peaceful atmosphere and the ever-changing unbeatable scenery.

Well, we sure will miss a lot of things here, but there are so many people and things that we’re happy to find again in Europe two weeks from now. Among other things, and in no particular order: cheese, bread, being able to afford most things and food, pubs, the English countryside, the Atlantic coast, picnics in the park, sunshine, charity shops and boot sales, Habitat, having a vehicle, the museums, the fashion, Waitrose, the wittiness, English gardens, Neil’s Yard Remedies, Hampstead, Portugal, our tagine dish, jam, ham, etc.

View from Royal Crescent by Rachel Milne

It’s all been a great adventure and we’ve learnt so much from it, and we will come back to Europe with a fresh perspective, and then lose it again, and then find other ways to entertain our restlessness. Abraham Lincoln said “and in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

We’re full of life and as Frank Costanza says in Seinfeld: ‘I’m Back, Baby!’

I’ve been meaning to draft this list for a while, but somehow I’ve been cautious and superstitious. I didn’t want to make my ‘like’ declaration to Vancouver and then a week later announce that we had to leave her, because things were no longer sustainable. It would have added to the heartbreak.

Now that we are used to this semi-permanent state of uncertainty, it is as safe as any other time to make this inventory. In any case, it will be good to have it somewhere in order to reminisce.

Also, it seems more mature to write a list of favourite things here after 4 months. The first month of expat life somewhere all is glitter and feathers, dazzling and exciting. Some things one might like at the beginning might change soon, but with time things settle and only the more relevant likings persist.

  • The French is rubbish: this makes me laugh a lot. It’s not about our Québécois cousins. By law everything has to be bilingual, all products come with English and French instructions. The thing is you feel that a lot of companies take this constraint half-heartedly and seem to be using google translator. This deliberate ill-will to respect the nation’s bilingualism on the part of companies cracks me up each time I flip a jar or a box and read labels. Then there is also the Québécois terms like ‘debarbouillettes’ (baby wipes), which are rather exotic.
  • wild things: we haven’t seen bears, we know they are out there in the mountains, but no furry encounter of that type yet for us. We are particularly fan of the bird life here. There’s the heron, whom I see from my window any cold and dry day. We used to see eagles quite often when we lived in Point Grey and now we catch sight of them enjoying the view from the height of the totem pole in front of the Maritime Museum. To see bigger wild things, we went to the Vancouver Aquarium where my yoga buddy Hilary works. My favourite sight there is their couple of otters which hold paws and swim together. We also do see the occasional skunk’s bushy tail, and the stiff moustache of a seal rise to the surface of the ocean from time to time.
  • it’s the 70s again: speaking of skunk, this rodent with a smelly bad rap has to compete with its vegetal counterpart: this city smells of weed, dude. Alcohol is expensive and grass has become a small industry. This is one of the reasons for the laid back attitude. In Kits, where we live the West Coast hippy spirit has survived and one sees all kinds of characters in the streets, thrift stores and at yoga. Last Saturday, we had a workshop with a woman dressed entirely in white, wearing a turban who told us that to save ourselves from the doom and gloom of the age of Aquarius, we needed to learn how to create fields of energy.  I felt quite lonely when I realised that I was maybe the only sceptical one in the room.
  • coffee shops: Vancouver has a well-known addiction to coffee. Although I’m a tea person, I do enjoy the coffee shops around Kits, some like Bennie’s on Broadway are nice and cosy and are great for a chat around the fireplace, hugging a cup of chai. Another of my favourites is the Arbutus coffee, it’s very much in the San Francisco style.
  • constant change of scenery: as they say a the tourist office, Vancouver is spectacular. The scenery is exceptional indeed, and we only have to walk for 5 minutes (or open a window) to see the ocean and the mountains. Whenever we can, we go for walks by the seaside. When I say “can”  I mean; whenever it’s not raining. The price to pay for the natural beauty here is rain, a lot of it. It’s hard to believe, but in winter it rains twice as much as in London and when it’s not raining, it can be overcast for days. Cloudy days can sometimes make you forget about the mountains. Then, one day, the sun comes out and the jewel that this place is shines again. You instantly forgive and forget the days of wet misery. Last Wednesday, with Ashley, we took Mac for a walk on ‘doggie beach’, and the weather was changing every 5 minutes, the light mutated constantly and the colours belonged to an illustrated story book. It’s great as well to stroll on the beach on the occasional snowy day. It snowed on my birthday and after brunch, we put on our hiking boots, to trample the fresh layer of powder on the sand. We stumbled upon the eeriest sight. A big rose bouquet, abandoned in a cardboard box on the beach, like a baby in a 19th century French  novel. It would make a good subject for a short-story contest and it still haunts me somehow.
  • yoga: I’m a big Semperviva fan. This is where I’m doing my teacher training until beginning of April and it’s quite an incredible place. 5 studios in Kitsilano, 150 classes a week, all kind of teachers and styles. Since we are in Kits, we check the Semperviva schedule like we would the movie listings. I doubt there is anything similar to Vancouver when it comes to its yoga community.
  • food: going out for food here is never boring. The variety of Asian food in particular is outstanding from Korean barbecues to Vietnamese pho or sandwiches, but above all the fast food here is sushi. It looks like there is a Japanese restaurant and a coffee shop on each block. Obviously also with all the hippyness and yoganess there are some very good vegetarian and vegan places, The Naam being everyone’s favourite.

We have now moved to our new flat and it is almost fully furnished, for free. We only had a 30 dollars bill at IKEA for 2 lamps, pillows and a toilet brush – not the kind of thing one would buy second-hand – and bit and bobs in thrift stores. We found a table next to our building’s dumpster and 2 chairs further down the road, so now we can have proper dinners. Two more chairs and we can have guests.

Some people from Craig’s list have been incredibly nice. A German anthropologist gave us her really nice futon bed and also a leather type storage box, that serves us as coffee table. She gave us a lift with both, and was sorry she didn’t have anything else for us for the time being.

Her husband was English and he had arrived in North America – San Francisco first – in the 70s. We told them our story and he asked ‘do you like it here?’, we nodded, so he replied ‘if you like it you will make it work’. I loved his conviction, and I think that he’s right.

We moved our stuff – and there’s always more than one thinks – in suitcases and bags up that hill and by bus. Little wonder then after all that lifting, carrying, cleaning, and upholstering; when teacher training started on Friday evening I was very sleepy. I spent the whole weekend in an incredible workshop with a master teacher, Michael Stone, psychotherapist, Buddhist and writer, who captivated us entirely with inspiring thoughts, quotes and facts about the body.

When I meet incredibly charismatic people, I understand how cults are born. Some people have that energy and intelligence, and they say just what you want to hear, with expertise and wit. Michael Stone’s latest book is called Yoga for a World out of Balance, in which he explains – and I oversimplify -that our society is behaving like an addict to certain set of narratives (consumerism, capitalism, etc.) and that like any addict it is taking more and more risks to get its supplies, driving countries to unsustainable extremes (poverty, mental illness, environment, etc.).

He offers two simple remedies: ethics and community. Restoring values is an individual task – changing intentions and actions – but creating a community isn’t.

Two mornings ago, I woke up and opened the windows and I saw how a heron was standing by a chimney pipe to get a bit of warmth on that cold day. I love herons, they have that old grumpy and yet majestic allure to them. Somehow they seem to be the loners of birds, you never see more than one at a time, probably because they are predators. They just stay around their area where the food is, minding their fishing business. So I always feel a bit bad for them, and there was something of a homeless sleeping on hot air vents in that heron: isolated and seeking heat in winter.

We’re not herons but we’ve been quite isolated here at the beginning but quickly we’ve found friends, via two communities: the expats and the yogis. Both are large entities and the way to connect these days is through the net and blogging. Both have been a lovely support network. I’ve been in touch with several expat bloggers and they have put me in touch with expats in Vancouver.

I met a lovely French expat and yogi two weeks ago. She has created her company helping out expats starting their businesses here. She has been really helpful and also gave me a secret and invaluable tip about cheese, and we might be able to buy affordable reblochon soon.

Jeff, one of my expat bloggers contacts reminded me that emigrating is a very humbling experience. To me, humility calls for gratitude. Since we’re here, we’ve been very thankful of the kindness of our friends back home lending us moral comfort, of the friends here who invited us over for Christmas and occasionally drive us around and lift heavy sofas, of the generosity of lovely strangers on Craig’s list and of the wisdom of senior expats and yogis.

I’ll finish with a quote from a yoga teacher yesterday, inviting us to a shift of attitude: ‘could we replace ‘what’s in it for me?’ by ‘how can I help?’

and I’ll leave you this week with another Heron:

”What’s for free darling?’

Lately, that’s what I ask Ed when he’s logged on to Craig’s List.

Last week has been, among other things, about counting our blessings. We have an empty flat to furnish, a shrinking budget and a firm intention to get most things second-hand. So far we have done better than we expected.

We have been transfixed by the Craig’s List free stuff ads, bidding on anything local. Also, on Friday we found out that in the back alleys of Kitsilano, people get rid of all kinds of good stuff.

We thought that thrifts were the best place to find decent second-hand stuff, but it turns out that, for the big things, Craig’s list and back alleys are the way to go. Our flat is now half furnished and we will be able to move in possibly on Wednesday.

So here’s a little inventory of the free stuff we got this weekend, just like that, ‘por nuestra cara bonita’ as they say in Spanish:

  • a sofa: from Craig’s list. It did cost the guys some effort and sweat to walk it to our new flat, but we now have something to sit and chill on. I will have some upholstering to do.

  • an armchair: one of our back alley treasure. We found it, looking rather dignified, right by a dumpster. I want to paint it dark grey and make some cushions for it.
  • a mirror: probably my favourite find – back alley again. It’s a nice and heavy wooden frame mirror. I really couldn’t have dreamt of a nicer one.
  • a shower curtain: Ashley gave me a shower curtain she never used.
  • a futon: a lovely French woman was giving away a bunch of stuff on Craig’s list and she gave us a real – and really clean – futon mattress. She had rolled it and protected it carefully for us to transport easily. She was a bit perplexed when Ed told her that it would travel on our bike. It was tricky but it made it there eventually.

  • a side table and a stool: also from the French lady.
  • a box spring: from Craig’s list
  • crockery: a previous tenant had left a box of crockery in the storage room. We have got glasses, bowls and plates.

Still on our list are a dining table and chairs, a TV and DVD player, a rug, lamps, a small dresser, a shoe rack and a bedside table. Somehow I’m pretty certain that we’ll get there this weekend  as it is the last of the month and people are moving out.

I could make a social comment about our disposable world. Instead I’ll take the freebies, give them a good and caring home, and I’ll strongly recommend this documentary on planned obsolescence. Some of it is in Spanish but it’s perfectly watchable as a lot of it is in English.

Well, everyone likes a tale with a twist, commercial fiction lives on this formula: disenchantment, epiphany, transformation, major setbacks, and happy resolution. Characters have got to earn their happy endind by flirting a bit too closely with disaster.

Yesterday, I was thinking of Humphrey Bogart in The Barefoot Contessa. His character, a disgruntled screenwriter, says : ‘Life, every now and then, behaves as though it had seen too many bad movies, when everything fits too well – the beginning, the middle, the end – from fade-in to fade-out.’

So here we are in our real life facing a twist that we didn’t see coming at all. Life after all seems to be the most cunning storyteller.

It was Friday and I was rather chirpy in the kitchen, making mango chutney. I knew that Ed was coming back a little later than usual, as he planned on buying a few bits for the weekend. So I didn’t expect him too early. The fragrance of the onions, tomatoes, mango and spices was filling the flat and I stirred the golden mix from time to time, pretty pleased with myself.

I heard Ed’s steps in the garden. I went to open the door anticipating that he would struggle with shopping bags. When I saw that he was carrying his tool bag and my eyes crossed his, I knew instantly that things were not right.

‘I got the sack’, he said, with a sad smile on the corner of his mouth.

Just like that.

The emotions flowed in their course: first shock, then indignation, disbelief, stupor, guilt, anxiety and so on, until we reached the final stage early on Saturday morning; resignation.

‘It’s not the end of the world.’ he bravely added later.

It did feel like it in the moment. The end of the little world we had crafted for the next few weeks and months. Back to uncertainty, our aspirations were blown away like cherry blossom petals on the pavement in spring.

It’s always amused me that our English-French cultural difference is the most striking in times of crisis. Ed stays cool and it’s his main task when the shit hits the fan: keeping his composure. Not showing weakness in the face of adversity. For me, it’s a blend of French existentialism, pessimism, socialist outrage and overreacting. In others words I’m a nervous mess. On Friday, the Titanic had sunk into our kitchen sink.

We irritate each other in our radical attitudes. He prompts me to stay cool and my jaw clenches. I’m fuelled on drama and he wants me to sober up! Sacre bleu!

We ate our butternut squash bhajis with the chutney in silence, our heads buzzing. I stayed up late reading the horror stories in the British Expats forum, about the sometimes harsh reality of the job market here.

Ed had posted about his premature redundancy and 19 people replied. A lot of them explained how this happened to them a few times. One was quite enlightening:

“Wow. You have described my past experiences exactly. I knew it had to be a North American thing. I am a plumber who is returning to Calgary in a couple of weeks. I have been let go from a few jobs like that. Mostly always on a Friday. Always the same reason. “We have no work.” After 2008 everything slowed down a bit and that is the year I also became a journeyman and I guess too expensive to hire.  I always found another job easily afterwards, but it seems like they would hire me telling me how busy they will be for 5 years blah blah blah. Get me to help finish a project, then out I go. No warning. So three months here, four there. “

I read a whole thread about ‘disposable employees’, painting a grim picture of employers’ behaviour in Canada. Tales of disappointment, contained rage and bitterness. Conspiracy theories about why the Canadian government lets in so many immigrants. Some posts actually recommended people against coming here at all.

I read them avidly trying to find one with which I would relate most and that would sooth the anguish. I started realising that one word was creeping up in the comments of the people who had a good experience here: luck. A lot of senior members of the forum simply stated that sometimes, it just boils down to being lucky or not.

You can hardly construct any kind of scientific theory on this observation, maybe statisticians, some chaos physicists or even the psychologists of risk  would be willing to give it a shot.  Astrologists might have their ideas about the ‘being at the right place at the right time’ phenomena. I could also draft a catalogue of luck cliches – you make your own luck, etc. – and it wouldn’t make it a bit more convincing. But at this stage, in this gamble we have taken, it’s all about keeping those fingers crossed.

We will see what the next chapter has to reveal. Diderot’s Jacques The Fatalist would say that it’s all written, Sartre would argue that our fate is the sum of our decisions, but I’ll stick once again with Sinatra who sings Luck Be A Lady Tonight.

So hang in there, dearest readers, it’s not the end of this story yet. We’re not close to a moving denouement and whatever happens, you can rest assured that there will be a sequel, a spin-off or a French adaptation.

Just wish us luck!

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