Leave to Remain

“If I go there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double.”

The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”

I recently learned that two good friends will be moving abroad before the end of the school year.  One friend shared the news via email; one friend told me in person.  Both received the same shocked response from me:  “What?  You’re leaving?  You can’t leave!”

How could these friends be skipping town and not me?  That was just wrong!  I should not be the one left behind; I should be the one forging bravely off to a new city, or a new country.  But no, this time I was staying put, and my friends were preparing to pack their bags and ride off into the sunset.

By my ninth birthday, I had lived in four different states, in eleven different towns, in twelve different houses.  At seventeen, I left the town I had lived in for eight years straight– a personal best– and moved to Sweden.  For the next twenty-two years, until I was thirty-nine, I followed an unwritten personal rule to stay in one place for no longer than three years at a time.  As we approached three years in any city, state, or country, I began to make my husband’s life miserable by insisting to him, over and over, that I could only attain any semblance of happiness if we moved right away to the place I was sure would be my Forever Home.  Towards the end of those twenty-two years, my husband began to dread my internal alarm clock.  A typical geographic conversation after two and a half years in, say, Boston, sounded something like this:

Me: “I just think that Sweden is so much more peaceful.  It’s much better for rock climbing, and the health care is far more reliable than the health care here, where if you don’t have insurance, breaking your arm can put you in debt for years.”

Håkan: “We’ve already lived in Sweden, and you didn’t like it, don’t you remember?  You felt you couldn’t communicate adequately, even though you’re fluent.  You made me promise you wouldn’t talk me into moving back.”

Me: “But I’m sure it wouldn’t be like that now.  I’ve grown up in these last two and a half years, and now I really think that Sweden is the best place for us.”

Håkan: “Beth, we can’t keep doing this.  Moving is hard work, and it’s expensive.  When are you going to finally settle down?”

Although I rhapsodized about staying in one location for good, just hearing the words “settle down” activated the fight-or-flight reflex that, in my case, had morphed into a well-tuned flight-or-flight reflex.  The thought that wherever we were living could be my final port of call was anathema to me.  There were a few cities, during those twenty-two years, which we called home more than once, but there were reasons for all of them to be crossed off of our short list:  Burlington was too small, Boston was too far from good rock climbing, and Stockholm was too Swedish.

Also, there were benefits to the three-year schedule.  I confess to enjoying the attention that came my way at leaving parties that we held.  Conversely, when we first moved to a new city, or when we returned to one of our standbys years later when our friends had often moved away themselves, I relished the anonymity.  I felt like a successful explorer in a brave new world when I discovered a wonderful cafe or the best place to buy tomatoes.  Friendships take at least a year to develop, and then comes a honeymoon period, but often, around the three-year mark, even a solid friendship will sail into hazardous waters.  However, if one friend announces her imminent departure just after the honeymoon period, the rocky section can be avoided.  Any disagreements that could lead to conflict can instead be glossed over, as both friends know that their time together will soon end.  Granted, learning the lay of the land in a new place and developing new friendships was always hard work, but it seemed preferable to me than staying somewhere that had come to seem unsuitable, or perhaps had become too well-known.

We had our first child, our son Sam, when I was nearly thirty-five.  Sam’s first year, not surprisingly given our geographic history, was unsettled; we moved three times within Stockholm.  When Sam was one and a half, Håkan and I packed our belongings for overseas shipping yet again and relocated to Cambridge, England, where our daughter, Nina, was born.  The sitting room of our cottage terrace in Cambridge measured a mere 12’X15’, and we shared walls with the pub next door, so one evening a month the sound of bells alerted us to impending Morris dancing, and every Saturday evening we heard Diamond Dave serenading the pub’s regulars.  We managed two years in Cambridge before Håkan, desperate for more living space, accepted an offer of a better job in southwest London.

For the first time in my adult life, I resisted the idea of leaving town.  Sam had been diagnosed with autism just after he turned three, and he was being monitored by the autism unit at the well-respected Addenbrooke’s Hospital.  I had become friends with a woman from California, Mimi, whose son had similar special needs; she lived two blocks away and acted as a comprehensive resource for Cambridge and its environs.  What would the provision for Sam be like in London?  How long would it take to meet a woman like Mimi, who would be sensitive to our circumstances yet able to lead us to the best London had to offer?

Håkan assured me that I would soon find a friend like Mimi and that Sam would have access to equal or better care in London.  Then Håkan informed me that, while he was very pleased that I suddenly seemed keen to settle down, the minuteness of our home in Cambridge was about to drive him over the edge and only by going to London would we be able to improve our prospects.  Thus advised, I said goodbye, regretfully, to Mimi, to the team at Addenbrooke’s, and to the particular locations in Cambridge that mattered to me: the nearby purveyor of vegetarian nut roasts, the playground in an enormous field beside the river Cam, the graveyard I had walked through four times a day on my way to and from Sam’s preschool.

As it turned out, Håkan was right about the friend, but not so right about care for Sam.  Ellie, a tall Australian with three children, took me under her wing within a few months of my arrival in London.  Ellie, like Mimi, was a connoisseur of the twenty-mile concentric circle with her home at the centre.  Two of Ellie’s three children were on the autistic spectrum, and Ellie was well-acquainted with local services for children with special needs; she let me know promptly (and, as I later discovered, accurately) that the doctor in charge of autism in the borough had no personality and was minimally competent.  Thankfully, there were a few independent charities that were more engaged; I had first met Ellie at a family event offered by one such charity, and we had chatted while watching our children jump, over and over, into the ball pit in the occupational therapy room.

Sam entered the reception year of a highly-regarded school close to our home, but after less than a month, it became clear that the school was not right for him.  A long battle to get Sam a statement of special needs, which would guarantee him one-to-one help and allow us to choose a new school for him, ensued.  With a statement in hand, we hand-picked a new primary school for Sam towards the end of his reception year; he started Year One at the new school, with many hours of mandated support, the following September.

Sam has just entered his sixth year at the same school.  But that doesn’t mean that we have lived in the same home for six years.  No, we did manage to move house in April of Sam’s second year at the school, as we wanted to stop driving and start walking to school.  That relocation was nothing like previous ones, however, as our new home was a mere two miles from our former home.  Håkan’s job, Sam’s school, and Nina’s preschool all remained the same, and while I needed to find new stores for top-up shopping, we still did our weekly shop at the same familiar Sainsbury’s.

So here we are, in southwest London, in the semi-detached house with the blue door that has been our home for the past three years and five months.  We rent, which is good because it satisfies my need for a quick escape route, but we fully expect to sign on for another two years come April, which will mean that by the end of our next lease period, we will have doubled our record for time spent in one home as adults.

The heaviest load to carry on the path from peripatetic to settled has been the baggage of interpersonal history.  A few months after I began taking the kids to the local Anglican church, I struck up a conversation with a friendly woman from New Zealand, Aimee, following a service.  She was a clinical psychologist, and she had some connections in London that I thought may be useful for my friend Ellie, also a psychologist by training.  I asked Aimee for her contact details; she wrote them neatly on the back page of my handbag notebook.  “Clinical psychologist,” I wrote underneath, to remind myself.

Several weeks later, Nina began talking frequently about Si, a boy she knew from both preschool and church.  I caught Si’s mum at preschool pickup one day and asked if she would be interested in sending Si round for a play date.  She said that Si had also been mentioning Nina at home, and agreed that a play date would be fun for the kids.  The preschool had no contact list for parents, so I asked Si’s mum if she could write her mobile number down, and I offered her the same page of my notebook that I had presented to Aimee.  Only after I had placed the page in front of Si’s mum did I notice my note about Aimee: “Clinical psychologist.”

Like many Americans, I am all in favour of therapy, but I had by that time lived in England long enough to understand that while friends in New York talked openly about counsellors they had seen, friends in London would only do so in hushed tones after several months of acquaintance.  I wished desperately that I had offered Si’s mum a blank page.

“Oh—that note about the clinical psychologist—that’s actually Aimee, from church, do you know her?”  I asked Si’s mum, flustered.

“Hmm, I don’t think I do,” Si’s mum said.

“Oh, well, she’s a psychologist, and I have this other friend that’s a psychologist, so that’s why I wrote it down, because I thought Aimee may be able to give my friend some tips about finding work in London,” I babbled, hoping to make it clear that I hadn’t written down Aimee’s profession for personal use.  Even as I offered my explanation I realized that I was just digging myself a deeper hole.

Si’s mum looked at me curiously, then wrote down her name and mobile number, to my mortification, just under “Clinical Psychologist”.  “Can you read that?” she asked.

I read her number back to her, aware that I was now at least two shades redder than I had been moments earlier, and told Si’s mum I would text her a couple of dates that would work for play dates.

I felt slightly queasy every time I saw Si’s mum after that.  Even now, four years later, when I sometimes bump into Si’s mum at church, the “Clinical Psychologist” incident springs to mind and I wonder again just how mad she thinks I am.

Although relocation offers a clean slate, to move to a new town, or especially to a new country, takes a great deal of energy.  So much of daily life needs to be re-established: where will I buy my bread?  Who can I befriend?  What are these people talking about when they say ‘zebra crossing’?  I began keeping a blog in earnest only after I had already lived in southwest London for three years, when the framework of my daily life had reached some semblance of stability.  To be fair, the timing may also have been thanks to our children becoming less demanding— on the date of my first blog entry, our son was seven and our daughter was four—but I am sure that becoming more established locally freed up mental space that could then be filled by creativity.

As far as incidental relationships, the rewards of staying put are perhaps best illustrated by the example of Mail Delivery Substation Man, or Mr Parcel for short.  Upon moving to our current house, the procedure for collecting packages too big to fit through our letterbox changed.  Rather than drive to the next town over, we needed to visit the mail delivery substation.  The substation is close to, but not in, the town centre, past the central post office parking lot, which is always crowded with post vehicles, cycles, and hand trucks, at the end of an exceedingly narrow passageway.  The office is actually just a counter, and there is room for only three people to wait in line inside.  Any other customers must stand outside in the passageway, thus necessitating much apologetic mumbling on the way out past the queue if one has the bad fortune of not getting to the office until just before noon closing time on a Saturday (on weekdays the counter is generously open until 1PM).

The counter, nearly always, is staffed by Mr Parcel, an extremely tall man with fine, longish salt and pepper hair and a matching, but better-maintained, salt and pepper full moustache and beard.  Mr Parcel wears silver-rimmed glasses, keeps a World’s Best Dad coffee mug the size of a small saucepan next to the window, and has affixed a small poster about the importance of keeping the Thames safe for fishing on the second counter window, which is permanently closed.  I can imagine Mr Parcel playing Santa, but he would be the sort of Santa that would point out to a child asking for a Ferrari toy car that Porsches are superior, or to a child asking for fairy wings, that wings may cause the child to fly away inadvertently.  The children would be confounded, and would wonder whether Santa was really on their side or not.  When working at the substation, Mr Parcel, whether by requirement or by personal choice, was a stickler for photographic ID.

The first couple of times I made my way to his counter, Mr Parcel scrutinized my license, then stared at me for a moment, comparing my appearance to the image on the card.  He seemed to only grudgingly admit that the license belonged to me.  The third time, he spoke up.

“The address on the slip doesn’t match the address on your license,” he said, disapprovingly.

“You’re right.  I need to get that changed.  It’s been on my to-do list, I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

“If you get stopped on the road and you don’t have your current address on your license, you can be fined,” Mr Parcel said seriously, peering down at me over the top of his glasses.  “I think the fine is several hundred pounds.”

I reddened, but thought I would try humour.  “I guess I better drive safely.”

Mr Parcel reluctantly handed me my padded brown envelope.  “You should move changing your address on your license to the top of your list.”

Thus scolded, when I returned home, I began rummaging through my piles of documents, looking for the paper counterpart to my plastic driving license; to change my address, I was expected to send in the slip at the bottom of the paper license.  After a twenty minute search, I gave up.  I called the Department of Motor Vehicles and confessed to losing my paper license.  Two days later, a form arrived; for £25, a new paper license could be mine.  I placed the form in the burgeoning “action required” pile in our kitchen, and promptly put it out of my mind.

I had no reason to see Mr Parcel for several weeks, but eventually I placed an order with Amazon that contained too many books for home delivery, and I found myself back at the substation.

I anticipated Mr Parcel’s comment, and announced pre-emptively, “I still haven’t fixed my license, but it’s because I’ve lost the paper counterpart.  I have a form though, so I can apply for a new one soon.”

“Ah ha.  Lost the paper counterpart.  I’m nearly certain you can be fined for that as well,” Mr Parcel commented dryly.

“That may be,” I agreed, thinking to myself, just please give me my books.

It pained me to spend £25 when I was sure my paper license was not really lost, just temporarily misplaced, and I continued to procrastinate.  Mr Parcel carried on admonishing me, but still turned over my intermittent packages.  One morning, when I knew the parcel contained cricket books for Sam, I brought Sam along.

“So is this for you, young sir?” Mr Parcel asked Sam as he prepared to hand the package through.

“Yes.  It’s books about cricket,” Sam answered.

“Cricket!  Are you a cricketer?”  Mr Parcel was taken aback.  He was quite aware that I was American, and he knew Americans generally think of an insect rather than a sport when they hear the word ‘cricket’.

“Yes, I am,” Sam said, matter-of-factly.

“Are you watching the Indian Premier League on telly then?” Mr Parcel asked, with a tone that implied he was pulling Sam’s leg.

“Yes.  I support the Mumbai Indians, but my little sister supports the Royal Challengers Bengalore.”

“I see,” said Mr Parcel, with visible respect.  “Hope you like your new books.”

Following the cricket revelation, Mr Parcel stopped glaring at me, and contented himself with stern looks when I, every so often, paid the mail delivery substation a visit.

One afternoon, while looking feverishly for some other important piece of paper that had been sucked into the black hole of documents in our home, I came across an envelope from the Department of Motor Vehicles.  I held my breath as I took out the papers inside.  Could it be?  Yes!  It was my long-lost paper counterpart license, complete with the “address change” form at the bottom.

“I can’t believe it!” I exclaimed to the empty room.  “I can finally change my address without paying £25!”

I posted the form twenty minutes later, and within three days, my new license arrived.  A few weeks later, when another book delivery necessitated a trip to the mail delivery substation, there was a bounce in my step and a big grin on my face as I approached the counter.  I had chosen a quiet time, and there was no one else in the tiny room when I presented my parcel slip and, with a flourish, my new license.


“What’s this then?  Did you finally get it sorted?” Mr Parcel said, with mock incredulity.  He took the license and held it up to the light.  “Well, my, my, your address actually matches the address on the slip!  Fancy that!”

“Turns out I had the paper counterpart all along.”

“Did you now,” Mr Parcel said, clearly not surprised.  “Congratulations!  Now you can be stopped by the police without any worries!”

“I’m still hoping to avoid that.”

Mr Parcel grinned at me, and handed me my package.  “What in the world is in this, it seems like a book, but it’s unbelievably heavy, what, is it made of solid wood or something?”

“It’s an encyclopaedia of cat breeds.  We like encyclopaedias at our house.”

“I bet you do.”

I smiled graciously and left the counter, book in hand.

There is a type of closer friendship, the shared history friendship, which only develops after about three years in one location.  I first met Daisy through my friend Ellie—their sons had attended the same preschool.  Daisy’s sons entered the same reception class as Nina.  I liked Daisy instantly, and I was always pleased to see her.  We only occasionally made specific plans to meet, but we saw each other often at coffee mornings and at evenings out with groups of mums.

I didn’t realize just how well Daisy knew me until school began again this autumn.  After dropping our children off on the first day of school, many of us met at a cafe to catch up after the summer holidays.  After a long chat, the time came to settle the bill.  As often happens with big tables, the money came up short.  Worried the waitress wouldn’t be left a respectable tip, I added some money to the pot.

Daisy intervened.  “What are you doing, Beth?  You already left your share.”

“I know, but we don’t have quite enough, and I want to be sure the waitress has her tip.”

“Just wait until everyone is back from the loo, it may work itself out then,” Daisy said.

When the mums had all returned to the table, Daisy and another mum rechecked the bill, and the shortfall was accounted for and redressed.  Daisy scooped up the amount I had overpaid and handed it to me.

“I told you that was too much,” she said, smiling.

A few weeks later, an even larger clutch of mums went out for dinner.  When the bill arrived, after several hours, two mums spent about ten minutes scrutinizing it, calculators in hand, before announcing a cost per head.  Ten more minutes of cash collection and change-making ensued, and then the waitress began to make the rounds with the card machine.  The two mums who had taken charge re-totalled, only to find that this bill had also come up short, by a more substantial amount than the bill at the coffee shop.

I took out a note to add to the silver platter, but Daisy, seated across from me, stopped me.

“Put that back in your purse, Beth.  Didn’t you learn anything from last time?”

“But this time there’s even more money missing, and the table was in my name, so I feel responsible,” I protested.

“The problem is, you’re too nice, and it gets you into trouble,” Daisy said patiently.  “Just wait a bit longer, I’m guessing someone hasn’t paid yet.”

Daisy was right.  One card had been missed out.  With that mum’s payment, the bill was covered, and the tip was appropriate.

I’ve never spoken to Daisy on the phone, but she was looking out for me.  It may be an illusion, but I see a net of friends like Daisy, or even like Mr Parcel (in a pinch), ready to catch me should I risk a serious fall here in London.  If our family moved to Chicago tomorrow—we know not a soul in Chicago– we would be completely without that net.  I haven’t tested if the net I have in London would hold me, and I hope I won’t ever need to try its strength, but it is comforting to think that the net might at least prevent a ground fall.

Overshadowing all other reasons to avoid relocation is my firm, yet largely intuitive, conviction that spending their childhood in one town will somehow benefit our children.  Of course, by having chosen London as that one city, our kids are missing out on lots of other aspects of childhood that may be equally or more important than geographic stability.  On paper, London is not a good fit for our family.  Just for starters, my husband is Swedish, I am American, but London is in England.  To visit any family, we need to cross the North Sea to the east or, more daunting, the Atlantic to the west.  During the first few years of our marriage, my husband and I habitually climbed thousand-metre mountains, and until Sam was born, we spent hours at outdoor climbing areas.  In London, we are two hundred miles from the nearest mountain over five hundred metres, and one hundred miles from good outdoor climbing.  As an American, I find it harder to read and follow the social norms of England than of Sweden.  I can’t even say I fully speak the language. Nina, in particular, speaks such British English that I occasionally misunderstand her; it took considerable exposure before I understood that when she said “bowl,” she meant something to throw, not something to hold food.

And yet, London suits me and Håkan.  The bustle of the city appeals to our restless natures, and we live in a suburb that encompasses a vast park.  Because neither of us is native, Håkan and I are on a more equal footing than we would be should we live in either Sweden or America.  We both have strong personalities, so having a more level playing field is a benefit.  Paradoxically, my status as a permanent outsider in England, a status revealed whenever I speak, comforts me.  I am less accustomed to belonging than to being an outsider, and as long as I live in London, I will never fully belong; I will always be “American.”  Our children consider London home; they speak British English, and they are happy at their school.  I have finally learned to consistently use the word ‘trousers.’

Still, after so many years of refusing to put down roots, the thought that we may remain here for many years to come does not always sit easily.  A friend from university in the States recently wrote to me.  She is hoping to make London the starting point of a trip she and her husband are planning to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, two years from now.

“Will you still be in London in 2014?” she asked.

It is now 2012, and when I read my friend’s innocent question, I panicked.  We couldn’t possibly still live in London in two years, could we?  Shouldn’t we have left several years ago?  I thought of my two friends in London who will be leaving town before long; it still felt all wrong for me to be saying goodbye to them, rather than vice versa.  But while I envied my friends their fresh starts, I knew that for the foreseeable future, I would only move away from London if under duress.

“We will still be in London in 2014,” I wrote back to my friend.  “I’ll look forward to seeing you then.”

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