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An Innocent Abroad

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Award-Winning Book in the 2015 Bookbzz Prize Writer Competition for Biography and Memoir
This is my sixth book. It was going to be the fifth until it was supplanted by the extraordinary events in Lucca and Florence (Misadventures in Tuscany).  Set in Missoula, Montana, it tells of our travails and joys during the year I spent there as an exchange teacher in the late 1970s. It is, therefore, a tale from the past, from an innocent time, a time before I realised my proper pecking order in the family.  It is also a tale of innocence because although I could speak the language, more or less, I was unprepared for the real culture shock that living in a country for a year or more was to bring. Just when I thought that I had overcome  one shock, along would come another.
 

There were  so many incredible experiences and so many colourful characters that I met along the way that the Montana experience will probably be a trilogy before it is fully told.  In the meantime, here is an extract from the sixth chapter which tells of our first morning in our new home…
It must be morning. The bedroom is light and there is not a light on. Iona is standing over me. There are tears in her eyes. No, it’s worse than that; they are positively running down her cheeks. I am drugged with sleep but already my heart is thumping in alarm. Has one of the kids died of exhaustion during the night and Iona has just discovered it?

“You’ve got to get up,” she says. “I’ve been up for hours and you’ve just got to come downstairs. I can’t stand it!” Her voice chokes and she hurries off again and in a soporific state of panic I wonder what can possibly be wrong. A glance at my adjusted wristwatch is enough to tell me it’s too soon to start worrying about the luggage. It must be something else.

I swing my legs onto a bare wooden floor, make my way along a bare wooden corridor and down the bare wooden stairs. Our luggage is still in the hall where we had left it last night. Through an arch without a door, there is a room ahead of me which Marnie had described as the "family room". That leads to the kitchen, also without a door, where I can hear the kids gurgling and Iona sniffling. I am really worried by now. It’s far too soon for homesickness surely to God, so what can it possibly be that is upsetting Iona so much? Obviously the kids aren’t dead, which makes me worry all the more what it could possibly be and of all the many moments of panic I’ve experienced since I arrived on this continent, this is by far the worst.

I make my way into the kitchen where it is difficult for my eyes to pierce the Stygian gloom. This house, which was a bright beacon of welcome last night, is as dark and gloomy now as it was light last night and about as welcoming as the grave. George and Hélène, still in their sleeping suits, are pinned behind a big, dark-oak table so they can’t fall out, their eyes as wide as owls at this hellish time in the morning.

I let my adjusted-to-the-gloom eyes wander around the room. There is a monstrous brown fridge, a cooker, a sink, and above it, the only window in the room, a very small one. Outside it, the branches of a huge fir tree, so close that they are practically touching the panes, effectively cut off any light from penetrating the interior. The window may as well give up the struggle. It should know when it’s beaten. That small aperture is never going to compete against what must be, by the height and density of it, a tree which must be at least a century old.

On the table, to counter the effects of the dark, there is a small Anglepoise lamp directing its feeble beam six inches ahead onto the table’s surface, while the rest of the room remains in gloom. When I pick up the head to adjust it, it flops back like a drunk’s and a shower of sparks at the base briefly provide a pyrotechnic display which light up the room. George flaps his arms in amusement and makes noises which mean: "Do that again daddy! Do it again!"

“Jesus! Why are you using this? It’s bloody dangerous! Why don’t you use the main light?”

“Because it doesn’t bloody work, that’s why!” Iona snarls. Her self-pity has given way to anger at me.  Which is only fair as it is my fault that we are in this mess in the first place. What’s more, I think she’s right – we really are in a mess. I’ve had that feeling for some time now, but couldn’t admit it to her. Now we are both agreed, wordlessly, that we have made a big mistake.

Why did I ever want to leave our cosy, semidetached, fully carpeted, well-lit, miniscule house in Brightons for this dark mansion in Missoula, Montana, halfway around the globe, away from friends and family, where our only points of contact were Al and Terri who couldn’t even turn up on time, couldn’t take all our luggage and couldn’t understand that all we wanted to do, with two small children, was to crawl off to our beds, not have a guided tour of Missoula when our eyes needed to be propped open with matchsticks, only to find that the house was aglow, lit up with electricity I couldn’t afford to burn.

I must have been mad to exchange that for this. I feel like weeping myself. Why couldn’t I be content? What have I done? What hell is this I have brought my family to?

But there’s no going back. We are here for a year now, like it or lump it.


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