Heading home?

heading-home-foreigndaze-2017A new year and a new phase of life has opened up for the Miron household. Nine and a half years after we left London one overcast August day we’re now planning to return in summer 2017.

The reasons are ostensibly uncomplicated, involving a desire to be close to family and old friends. But coming to this conclusion has been accompanied by a rollercoaster of indecision, doubts, second-thoughts, and further prevarication.

Further postings will – among other things – chart the preparations, reality and long journey (in more ways than one) of going back to the UK – no doubt registering the daze of returning ‘home’ having been overseas. They will also reflect upon the time spent in the US and Israel, as well as relate the many experiences yet to be had.

When I established this blog I titled it ‘Foreigndaze’, reflecting the curiosity and periodic confusion of being outside my native country. In the course of the past decade away a lot has happened. My children have grown from infants to young girls – ingesting the languages, accents, customs and ways of the places we’ve lived. For them the UK is not home, it’s the place they go reconnect with grandparents, cousins, and Cadbury’s chocolate.

For me, the UK has also begun to feel foreign. When I go back it feels exotic. I have to remember to look the right way when stepping into the road to ensure I’m not run over, and have to force myself to alter my vocabulary as appropriate (trousers instead of pants).

This most recent extended jaunt away follows a further 7 years I spent outside the UK when I was younger. But returning on this occasion is different and somehow more significant. It feels as if the once familiar world we inhabited has become foreign.

There have been huge changes in the US and the UK in the course of the past ten years. When we left George Bush was on the way out of office having dug the US into a morass in Iraq and Afghanistan. His Presidency gave way to the stunning reality and hope of Barak Obama – the first man of colour in the White House, and a person who – unlike his predecessor – possessed ample intellect and caution.

Back in 2007, the UK was still governed by the Labour Party and wedded to the idea of the European Union. It ruled over a country that seemingly had no problem embracing notions such as gay marriage and understood that immigration was a symptom of a healthy economy and not a malignancy.

Now both the UK and US are unmoored. Two pronouns sum up all that feels unsettling and ominous: ‘Trump’ and ‘Brexit’. On top of that Israel, a country where I have spent eleven years of my life, also appears to be heading down a similar path where chauvinistic populism is laying siege to tolerance, consensus and basic democratic values.

But rather than just complain and bemoan the fact that the world appears to be going the wrong way down a one way street, I hope this blog will also chart the excitement and challenges of finishing one long adventure outside the UK, and the beginning another within it.

Venturing overseas has brought an array of experiences that my family would never have had if we’d stayed within the comfortable confines of North London. Some of the times have been good, a few truly terrible – but all invaluable.

Preparing to move, to find new jobs, sort out schools, manage finances and attend to all the matters big and small of our transition, are headaches. But along with all of that I plan to ensure that this final portion of time in the US isn’t wasted.

It is a privilege to be here even during these truly disturbing times. Alongside travelling to far corners of this amazing country, I will also take the opportunity to observe the goings-on close-by: at home, with friends and particularly from a certain Oval Office situated just a couple of hundred meters from where I’m writing this blog.

More than anything I hope my postings will serve as a record of a special time, and that they will provoke interest and reaction among those who come along for the literary ride.

The election cycle and life cycle in the US

applepieIt’s been two years and two days since we arrived in US.

In my head, before we made the move, the thought of coming to live in America summoned up romanticized images of the huddled masses aboard ships sailing past a foggy Statue of Liberty en-route to Ellis Island, to new lives filled with hope and freedom (all set to a soundtrack of Neil Diamond songs).

The reality was far more mundane – British Airways to Washington International Airport, an hour in line to get our passports checked, and then off to our pre-arranged service apartment.

As it happens we landed in the States on the day of the last US Presidential election and I’m writing this in the wake of another national contest – this time for Congress.

This is not to suggest that politics has been a central facet of our time in the US, far from it. But given that Washington DC’s main business is that of government, politics finds a way of intruding into everyday life – such as being caught in a traffic jam as the Presidential convoy makes its way to Congress for the State of the Union Speech.

Nonetheless there is a connection between the US election cycle and the course of our stay – so far – here. The two year mark provides an opportunity to take an accounting – on a national level – of the state of the country, and from our domestic stand-point, on state of our family in the country.

On the national stage much has changed in that time – with President Obama going from the man with the political Midas touch to an untouchable.

We have also changed from wide-eyed newcomers, to (relatively) settled members of a community. In that time, we have found a home, a school, a synagogue and a social circle that seems to fit for our family.

Certain aspects of our absorption into American life have proved easier than others. Unlike in Israel we haven’t had to contend with a foreign language, or a national culture that is predicated upon argument as the basic form of communication. There is also a lack of British reserve and cynicism, which helps in getting things done and getting to know people.

Americans are open, helpful and generally very polite. Initially I found this disconcerting, wondering what was wrong with these people, and if they were medicated to behave so well. And while there was much cultural familiarity, I sometimes found that we really were ‘two peoples divided by a common language’, in everything from swearing to humour.

We have had to make adjustments to the peculiarities of life here as compared to the Middle East. In Israel there is a gritty realism where your senses are heightened (or is that assaulted?) by the sights, smells and human interactions to be found in the markets, streets, and places where people mix. In the US, life is more organized, predictable, and clinical, to the point where you can’t wander more than a few paces without being confronted by a hand sanitizer to ensure that you are suitably sterile.

There are of course good and bad – in the ways and peoples of both places, but it all takes time to get used to the change.

It also takes time to find friends with whom you can be yourself, and this can be an exhausting process. Upon arrival we began meeting people, through work, the school, the neighbourhood and elsewhere. Getting to know them was a reminiscent of dating from my single days without the potential for humiliation or sex. We would meet up with people for a drink, dinner or brunch – and in most cases that would be that. But after endless get-togethers with an assortment of individuals and families we have found a close few, with whom have we can spend effortless time, just being ourselves.

The past two years has been a journey of discovery. We have found the US to be a more foreign and more fascinating country than first imagined. Compared to Israel the notion of American history seems like an oxymoron. And yet despite the relatively short record of modern America, it also possesses a compelling narrative, accompanied by endless places to discover and things to do.

So in reflecting upon the past two years in DC, and our move from Israel it seems appropriate to draw upon an important political source – Winston Churchill – who summed it up best of all when he said that, ‘now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

My grandfather’s war – Images from 100 years ago.

This slide show contains a selection of items related related to my grandfather Gabriel Miron (1896 – 1979) who served in the King’s Royal Rifles in the First World War from early 1915, until he was injured in October 1918 a month before the end of the conflict.

For a fuller account of his experience in the War see my blog, ‘My Grandpa – My Hero’

To initiate the slide-show CLICK on one of the images below

My Grandpa – My Hero

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Lance Corporal Gabriel Miron, 4th Batallion King’s Royal Rifles

A hundred years ago the First World War began, and a few months after that my Grandpa Gabriel joined up to play his part in the conflict.

I remember him as a reserved man, who liked a Dunhill cigarette and small glass of brandy while doing the crossword in his flat situated above his dental surgery. We used to joke that he wasn’t quiet by choice, it was just that he was drowned out by the presence of my Grandma Dora with her purple rinse hair and her booming Welsh accented voice.

Gabriel was born in Swansea, South Wales, the youngest of five children to Israel,  a Lithuanian-born chazzan (cantor), and Leah who originally came from Poland. He joined the army seemingly as soon as he was able, according to rumor, to get away from his father who beat him.

He became a Private – then later Lance Corporal in the King’s Royal Rifles. His ID number was R-13130, which made many of his army comrades superstitiously consider him doomed. But ironically Gabriel was the lucky one, surviving when so many did not.

His military record includes fighting in some of the most historic and bloody encounters of the War from the early trench encounters to the closing battles including: Ypres, the Somme, and the Battle of Cambrai which finally led to breaking through the previously impregnable Hindenburg line. He also took part in a mostly forgotten sideshow in Salonika where the British Army was sent to support the Greeks. His was a war fought amid close quarters in the muddy chaos of the trenches with the possibility of death never far away.

Despite being wounded by shrapnel, almost dying of dysentery and contracting malaria, he made it back home alive (initially in a wheelchair and emaciated), with a Military Medal for gallantry.

But Grandpa didn’t talk about the war, and we kids were told not to ask him about it. I remember when I was about five years old being with my brother in my grandparent’s flat asking him excitedly to tell me about the war. The next thing I recall is him taking down his trousers to show me the back of his legs with chunks missing and pockmarked skin where he’d been injured. ‘You want to know about war, that’s war’, he said – or words to that effect.

Over the years he did let slip snippets to my father, uncle and aunt about his experiences giving clues about what it was like. He mentioned winter in the trenches; so cold and so muddy that the coats they wore were frozen into the ground. He spoke of walking up to the front on the Somme, passing the bodies of Canadian soldiers laid out for over half a mile – or as he put it the length of Kew Road (where he lived in London). He once told my aunt that after he was injured by a shell in his leg at Ypres, the surgeon in the medical tent dipped a pad of cotton wool in iodine and pushed it into the wound – there were no anesthetics.

G MIRON postcard read side 1

Postcard sent October 5th 1918 (just three days before he was injured) en-route to battle.

It wasn’t until after he died in 1979 that we found his keepsakes of the war which he’d kept from view. There is a picture postcard of him looking smart in his uniform with a poignant message sent to his brothers just before he heading off to the Western Front, ‘au revoir  (not goodbye)’.

From his time in Greece, there are delicately preserved dried flowers picked ‘on the banks of the Struma (River) at 12 midnight on Wednesday October 11th 1916 near the Nehori Bridge on patrol’.

A moment of peace: flowers picked while out on patrol - Greece 1916.

A moment of peace: flowers picked while out on patrol – Greece 1916.

 

Letter to Gabriel’s mother informing her of his Military Medal. ‘I know how well this decoration has been earned’.

There is also the letter from the War Office sent to his mother informing her of his Military Medal.

There are a number of other mementos including a picture with comrades grouped around a machine gun, a message to his ‘dear Mother’, his prayer book issued to ‘Jewish soldiers and sailors’, and his ID tag with surname incorrectly spelt MYRON (a perennial hazard in our family) .

His silence about the war generated its own hum of curiosity and wonder among his children and grandchildren. Looking back I see two versions of his life. There is my grandfather, the boy turned soldier and war hero (although he would never have allowed such immodesty), who is known through the crumbs  of information he divulged, along with his memorabilia and war records. They give hints of his character: his courage, sensitivity and humanity in the midst of unimaginable horror.

The second version of his life is the family man, who once out of the army went to dental school, and married a Jewish girl from back home in South Wales. He settled down to a life in an upper middle class suburb of London, working hard (until his dying day aged 83) to provide for his family, sending his children to English private schools, and pursuing his passion as a Freemason. He enjoyed playing practical jokes and tussling with his grandchildren showing us some of his old boxing moves (another hobby from his army days). If he had demons from the war we didn’t see them – all we saw was our Grandpa.

He was loved and revered for what he knew of him, and also for what we half-knew about him of his time at war. In thinking now about him now, I am filled with wonder at what he did as a soldier, how he survived and how he retained a sense of himself throughout it all. I am sure I could not have done the same. I am also in awe of what he did afterwards in providing love and security for all his children, in building a family and leading by example through his decency and modesty.

So in remembering the First World War and the millions who suffered as a result, I shall keep in mind one man – my Grandpa Gabriel, R-13130.

Do you have a family history involving World War One? Please share.

A special note of thanks to my cousin Helen Style for all her help in gathering much of the material and information in this blog.

A full display of my grandfather’s materials from World War One will be put up on-line in due course

London’s rising fortunes. For good – or not?

London skylineIn the early 90’s I lived in what an estate agent would call a homely bijou residence, i.e. a cramped, ill-proportioned flat. It was situated in a development called ‘Elm Village’ which was clearly thought up by a very imaginative developer. Rather than being situated, as the name suggests, amid verdant woods in a quiet rural setting, it was surrounded by railway lines and semi-redundant warehouses, littered with old beer cans and condoms.

The creative naming was understandable given that Elm Village was situated just behind the undesirable London transport hub of Kings Cross Station. Then, the area was synonymous with befuddled alcoholics, roaming gangs of feral teenagers, drugs and more.

Despite the efforts to create an up-market oasis in Elm Village, it couldn’t escape its location – to the point where we were forced to put up barriers in our car park to prevent local prostitutes from conducting business there. On one occasion female colleagues from work on their way home from dinner at my place, were stopped by the police who quizzed them as to whether they were ‘out working’. My friends weren’t amused and never came back again.

I bring up Elm Village, as I happened to pass it last week for the first time in over fifteen years, while in London. We were in the UK for a family trip, staying not far away in Tufnell Park. On the first full day, I went for a jog, and found myself drawn in the direction of Kentish town and the Camden Road. These areas now appear fully gentrified. Out have gone the tobacco stained boozers dispensing cheap beer and – at most – crisps to eat, and in have come faux-distressed looking gastro pubs offering mojitos and Mediterranean-style mezze.

Elm Village once a speck of yuppiedom in a wider expanse of urban decay has been joined in the area by a multitude of loft flats in place of the decrepit warehouses. The back of Kings Cross Station which once housed dodgy locks-ups (one of which was fittingly the location of a serial killer’s lair in a TV drama) has been transformed into a new trendy mecca, with arts college, restaurants and fountain-filled square. Kings Cross Station itself has also been made over having had its shockingly ugly 1960’s extension torn down, to be replaced by a sympathetically designed public-friendly ‘urban space’.

The regeneration of this part of central London is old news for most in the city. Huge construction and revitalization projects are underway throughout the urban area from Paddington in the West to Stratford in the East. But to someone who once knew London so well, it’s disorientating. Arriving at Tottenham Court Road, I was completely confused by the absence of the old Astoria Theater and nightclub. It’s been demolished to accommodate – what is at this stage – a large hole in the middle of road, that will ultimately become a link in a new cross-London railway line.

Strolling past freshly scrubbed older buildings, and gleaming newer ones, I crossed the Thames to the Tate Modern Art Gallery, which not satisfied with already being huge in size and reputation is now in the midst of a building project to further increase its size and offerings. From there I fought my way through the throngs to the Borough food market. Once a forgotten corner of the city hurriedly passed en-route to Waterloo Station, this area has now become a destination for the culture-vultures and gastro-tourists. Towering over the area (and the whole of London) is the sleek and beautiful Shard skyscraper, the latest addition in a clutch of imaginative (and sometime strange-looking) buildings that have sprung up in or close to the financial heart of the City.

All this is – in theory – a wonderful phenomenon. The damage wrought by the Blitz and post-war redevelopment seems to be finally being put right. London is flourishing with ever better transport, housing, culture and food. But having recently spent considerable time in New York I can also see the flip side of the change in its fortunes. London is at risk of becoming ‘Manhattanized’ – which can be defined as, ‘habitable only for those of considerable means – thus stripping the urban fabric of its diversity, future potential and human riches (as opposed to just riches)’.

I once had a flat in an area called Kilburn which appears as it if it is being gentrified out of existence. The actual road where my flat was situated now sits in the ‘Brondesbury Conservation Area’ and posher West Hampstead has spread like an affluent stain to encompass what was once most decidedly Kilburn. The prices have also increased putting the area out of reach to those trying to buy an affordable home. A cramped one bedroom flat like mine now goes for over £300,000. As a result, long gone are most of the working class Irish who used to make up the area, and in are moving only those who earn a six figure salary.

Inner London has traditionally been a diverse and exciting place, with a mixture of people from differing economic and ethnic backgrounds rubbing shoulders. Cites are not just the mass of their physical environment, but also the sum of their human capital, and London has historically been living proof of that.

The danger for the city now is that its economic rise could also mark a fall for its social fabric. Unless those differing types including the teacher as well as the tycoon, the old timer as well as the new comer can have their place in the city then it may brim with money but it will be empty of spirit.

If you’re a Londoner (or not) let me know what you think of the changes in the city, for the good and for the not so good.

Home and Away

My (tourist) LondonBritain has always possessed a particular solidity, a certain knowledge that aspects of life can be relied upon to remain the same. The weather is likely to be drizzly even when it’s meant to be sunny, people will find endless ways to discuss it even when there’s not a lot to say, and everyone will complain about the Royal Family but then go weak-kneed at the prospect an infant member of the monarchy, or a Royal Wedding.

Last week I visited the UK for work and for a much-rushed diversion to see some friends and family. The trip was fun but also unsettling. After leaving the country seven years ago, it’s beginning to feel like unfamiliar territory, as if the solid damp ground has begun to shift beneath my feet.

Firstly the newspapers were full of speculation about the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, speculating that the nationalists north of the border may just win the vote. I have always felt about British patriotism much as I have about tea; fine – so long as it’s not too strong or too weak, and best accompanied by something sweet and soothing such as the shipping forecast on Radio 4 or a chocolate digestive! So it was very strange to hear that the Union (or at least part of it) which has been around for hundreds of years could – by democratic consent – pass into history. I found myself reacting to the prospect with sadness and confusion, which felt strange and unwarranted since I don’t live in Britain and that it’s unlikely to make much difference to life in London – that part of the UK with which – if at all – I most identify.

And then there is the change to London itself. It could once be depended upon to offer up crumbling public services, a familiar mix of communities – mainly gathered in from parts of the British Commonwealth, and a general urban malaise. But the city has changed – not quite beyond all recognition – but rather like a participant on a makeover show, who has become a snazzier, sexier version of what they once were.

Tube trains not only run with reliable regularity, but they are clean and modern. Stations are unrecognizable; Blackfriars, which was once distinguished by its dirty orange wall tiles and urine scented pedestrian tunnels, is now a gleaming modernist steel and glass structure, resembling a hi-tech haven rather than the commuter hell it once was.

The population also appears to have undergone a major overhaul. The city is more Tower of Babel than Tower of London, with the mix of French, Polish, Arabic, Somali and many other languages co-existing with longer established Jamaican, Indian, Irish and Cockney accents. New areas of the city, once no-go areas have become must see territory – such as Kings Cross, Hackney, and almost anywhere within a few miles of Shoreditch. While in London, I did a double take in reading a newspaper review of the latest in fine dining from – once gastranomically barren  – Peckham, along with the growing selection of choice food shops in the area.

None of these changes are ostensibly negative (although the benefits that possible Scottish independence will bring to the Scots is debatable), and many are clearly very good; a tribute to British tolerance, pragmatism and economic far-thinking. But in a deeply personal way, these changes send an ambivalent message, that what was once familiar is now becoming foreign, and that by continuing to live overseas it will become ever more so. It also raises a question about what is home. Is it the place where you come from? Or is it the place or places you have chosen to make your life? And at what point does the place you reside become more home than where you grew up?

Clearly food for thought and future material for ‘Foreigndaze’.