Thursday, 26 July 2012

Riding into the sunrise

So we're on the road again. 

Chaos HQ is heading to the the land of mañana for a spell. Goodness knows where this adventure will go - hopefully not bananas. All I know is there's a little house on the llano, and a hound dog called Elvis waiting for us. Not a bad way to start, I reckon. 

In Girl Scout camp, we used to sing a particular song when it came time to go home from a nice week spent making stuff out of ribbons and hopping around campfires wearing ribbons. A departure lyric rivaled only by Shane MacGowen and Willie Nelson, it goes:

Make new friends, but keep the old - one is silver and the other's gold.

This season of life has been rich in joy, friendship, and human kindness. For these blessings I will always be grateful.

Posting may be moderate to poor for a bit, clearing as boxes do. See you on the other side - till then, may the road rise up to meet you and the sun shine warm upon your face.

To go far is to return. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2012


Winning at chaos. 
The Jubilee hoopla has morphed into sporting hoopla. Here at Chaos HQ, we didn't think much about it until we encountered some alien cyclopes while out at the park.

These mascots have completely captured the imaginations of my girls, who now like to argue over which one is Wenlock, and which one is Mandevelle, and furthermore whether they come from Mars or Venus.

Too surreal, even for kids.
Though I've always been crap at sports that don't involve sitting, I have been madly practicing one event in the lead-up to the sporting hoopla: underground buggy juggling. As you might imagine, the event takes place entirely on public transport, and involves Herculean effort to make it to the finish line. In terms of status it ranks lower than solo synchronized swimming, and the winner gets a mere  frown from hardened commuters.

As with the Jubilee, I suspect local curmudgeonliness will magically melt into mild patriotism and extreme good will during the actual event. I was in Sydney in 2000, and I remember the air palpably buzzing with festive cheerfulness, aided by buckets of beer. I found the vibe especially positive at the Paralympics, a wonderful idea first born in Stoke Mandeville, just like my second daughter.

Gold medalists. 
Maybe the frightening alien cyclopes, now on duty all over London's scenic walkways, are there to remind everyone to cheer the heck up, grab a bucket of beer, and cheer their heads off for the underground buggy jugglers and swimmers alike.

All this nonsense aside, here's the really crucial bit: after a two month delay due to the wrong kind of weather on the line, the sun has finally arrived. So, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to eat ice cream for Team Chaos.

Saturday, 14 July 2012


Eight years ago on the solstice, my beloved and I found the Thames Path by accident. It was a rare perfect summer's day, and the sunshine compelled us to go outside and just keep walking.

From little acorns. 
We lived in a neighbourhood of Oxford called Jericho, on the Thames. We walked to Port Meadow, an ancient common, and followed the river to the Perch pub and then on to the Trout. We picked daises at Godstow Abbey, as far as we'd ever come before. Then, feeling childishly curious, we slipped through the old wooden kissing gate beyond and just kept going.

What we found was a charming sheep-infested landscape of towering electricity pylons and picture-perfect parish churches. We discovered narrow boats and locks like delighted toddlers finding ice cream for the first time. A timid affection was born in us that day for the little island that had up to that point only managed to impoverish us and piss rain on our heads.

Bridge over the river Frump. 
We met a rambler who explained that we were actually on a well-established path stretching 180 miles from the source of the Thames in a muddy Cotswolds field to the Thames Barrier beyond Greenwich. This was news to us because we'd never even heard of rambling before.

We asked a lock keeper how to find a bus. He laughed and pointed out in charming local dialect that Oxfordshire on a Sunday was "basically total BFE". So we walked all the way home, only arriving at dusk. For some reason our resulting blisters convinced us that this Thames Path business would make a great summer hobby.

Table for two for ten. 
We did it in day chunks, taking the train to the start of the next section of walk, and then home again (avoiding BFE Sundays). We watched the river bloom from small to mighty, tracing a ancient journey through green hills and pleasant valleys. Eventually trains got too expensive and grown-up duties called, so we skipped the end bit from Hampton Court to the Thames Barrier. We returned to the tedious grown-up landscape - a place that transcends national boundaries - and forgot about the Thames for some time.

But this summer, on our tenth wedding anniversary and exactly eight years after that sunny Jericho afternoon, my beloved and I set out to finish the Thames path from where we left off.

Though we are seasoned islanders now, we made new discoveries this time too. We discovered that Chiswick is covered in wiry rowing boys, like the rivers of my childhoods were covered in water spiders. We noticed that some of the lesser-known London bridges look like Victorian wedding cakes designed by three-year olds. We witnessed a Tower of Babel rising over Southark, and confirmed that the Millenium Dome is in fact the ugliest single thing that humanity has ever built (including Las Vegas).

Best of all, we reacquainted ourselves with the quintessential ramblers beverage: ale shandy.

Time and tide. 
There are so many wonderful statues on the Thames Path, like one at Rotherhithe, where the pilgrims departed for America. It is a statue of a pilgrim papa showing his boy a book about America, and the future. The pages show cowboys, space shuttles, cars, and in one instance: a cowboy riding a space shuttle. We left a penny in the papa's pocket for good luck. Pilgrims like us can always use some luck.

It took a relatively brief time to walk through central London, as compared to much longer jaunts through the home counties and the docklands. I find it odd to consider that such a dominant stretch of the cultural landscape is physically dwarfed by Sloughs and Mudshoots. 

Wherever you is, that's where you are.
When we made it to the barrier, we recounted our journey down the river - all the places we'd been to over the years. We found a giant plaque of the Thames on a wall, with all the towns along it marked out. We traced paths to our friends homes, recounting the best pubs and the sunniest afternoons. We picked out both the idyllic and the hideous from the landscape (sometimes one and the same), and remembered all the places where we'd been rained on (this took some time).

We put it on video for the kids. They will never see it with our eyes, nor will we see their discoveries with ours. But I try to leave them stories scattered here and there, like this blog for instance, which turns two today.

At the end, my beloved and I felt rather like Odysseus returning home from sea. We smiled like high fructose corn syrup breakfast champions, and strode into the guest centre at the Thames Barrier.

Here we found a lonely lady in a tea shop. We were the only ones through that day, she said, what with the bus strike an' all. She coughed  and made us tea. We tried to figure out how the heck to get home, having unexpectedly looped back to total BFE.

Crossing the bar.
It was a fitting end to the adventure of a decade on a rainy island, where there have been brief flashes of mighty London, and long desolate stretches of Slough.

Endings involve an inevitable element of sadness. But I reckon they are good for the soul, because endings are a reminder that life is a verb, and it is rapidly lifing past the window.

Best drink those ale shandies now.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Generational wisdom

When the midwife placed Ana in my arms, I looked at my beautiful child and thought...HOLY CRAP! What the heck can I teach this child?

When the panic passed, I decided I'd just have to make it up as I went along. I suspect my mother had the same realization, but managed too stay cooler about it. 

These days I'm getting pretty relaxed about this muddling through business, and I occasionally manage to come by actual bits of wisdom to impart on my offspring. Here's one I just found: make a habit of befriending artists. For these reasons: 
  1. They tend to make good drinking buddies.
  2. They are beautiful human beings who see the joy in life. 
  3. When they see the joy in life, they capture it in paint, and not using stick figures and glue. 
  4. Occasionally you get lucky and they decide to paint your portrait, which is pretty cool.
My dear friend and talented artist, Alejandra of, created this portrait of all us girls here at Chaos HQ. She's also the genius behind the profile image on your right. 

Offspring - by Alejandra Bize. 
Do check out her lovely cards and other beautiful stuff. Should you find yourself in London or Copenhagen, buy her a pint of Guinness and see if you can talk her into painting your portrait. After two pints and several promises of gin, she may even agree to create a children's book series with you...but she'll have to finish a series with me first!

So there's my advice kids: befriend artists and buy them gin. And that's my parenting done for the week.

Thanks Ale!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Note to a small island

By: Lindsey

“Let me guess… Australian?”

“Ummm, no, English.” 

“Oh, I thought so. I really have an ear for accents you know."

Really? I sound really English to me. Which doesn’t sound very Australian, but apparently there isn’t much in it if you live in Maryland. 

I blame Nicole Kidman for confusing everyone with her English/Australian accent in Australia - the film that is. It certainly wasn’t a question I was expecting to be asked once a month when I moved to the US, but I guess in the enormity of moving overseas, it’s not such a big deal.

I’ve become one of those ex-pats who moans about the fact you can’t buy ‘proper’ teabags here. You can buy UK things here, it just costs a bit more. And with the food packages from family and friends, I have no right to moan about that. I still moan about the money though. Why are all the notes the same colour? And why is a five cent coin bigger than both a dime and a quarter? 

Going on an American bear hunt. 
I miss my family like crazy. The world is small, but it could still be a little smaller when I want to give my Mum a cuddle.

There are so many things I like about living here. I like the heatwave we’re currently having; especially while the UK bathes in, well, rain. It’s Wimbledon isn’t it? Is it really a surprise it’s raining? 

I’m growing tomatoes! And chili and broccoli and radishes and potatoes and a whole range of other things! They will mainly get eaten by deer and groundhogs and rabbits and chipmunks, but at least they would have a chance of growing big and strong, not like my pitiful attempts at tomato growing in Glasgow. 

So far we’ve had a snake in the basement, a groundhog living under the porch, a black bear in the neighbourhood (the black sunflower seeds in bird feeders are apparently crack to bears) and of course the family of deer who forget they're meant to be scared of humans and eat everything in their path (not humans thankfully).

I love the fact my babies are happy. Boy 1 has grown confident and brave and continues to amaze me day after day. Boy 2 is American, born but not bred, so I guess he will still have some roots in the UK. 

I do wonder a lot about things. If we stay here, my boys will identify with being American. I will always identify with being British. I don’t know how I’m going to feel about that as the years go by, and they don’t realise that you should offer a cup of tea to every visitor who comes to the door. 

Will we stay here? Who knows, but it is a good life for my family. We smile a lot more and do a lot more, and we all have a lovely tan.

~ Part of Strangers in Strange Lands. Lindsey is a doula, tea drinker, and forensic biologist, which means she spends a lot of afternoons wondering if snails need doulas. This being the 4th, she is obligated to attend some sort of BBQ thing, after which she is entitled to a restorative cup of Yorkshire Gold. 

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Call me broccoli

By: Britt

Foreign is what I felt for the first 19 years of my life. 

I was condemned by birth to a country that totally creeps me out. Nobody ever thought I was funny there. I got out of there like a bat out of hell first chance I got, and have been engaging the universe in uproarious encounters of the foreign kind ever since. 

The Economist wrote an article on being foreign a couple of years ago, from which I remember this nugget for the purposes of scintillating dinner party conversation: “For the first time in history, across much of the world, to be foreign is a perfectly normal condition.”

Valkyrie Vegetables. (Jessica Mullan)
Being Caucasian, I slide into western European, North American and Antipodean locations very nicely.

There are two caveats here. First, I have the shoulders of an incredible hulk. I am foreign-looking in the kind of feminine outfit that a large proportion of the female species of all countries seem to slide into. Don’t get me wrong: I am not fat - I'm Valkyrie.  

When I leave the bright lights of the city and enter central Manitoba, the mountains of Cyprus, sheep farm country in New Zealand, I slide into place much better. It's something about hard physical labour, the free fresh air, rising when the sun comes up, and jumping into bed when it goes down. Too bad I HATE the countryside.

I know you are all waiting breathlessly for caveat 2, and it's in my mouth: my command of various languages is perfect, but I don’t sound like I fit into the geographical locations where I find myself. And I can't find the strength to stay mute for a couple of days to try fitting in. 

If I picked a mid-size town - let’s say Chattanooga, Tennessee - I'd slide right in. It’s countryside-like enough that there'd be a fair influx of broad shouldered country gals. And if I didn’t speak at all, how could anybody in Chattanooga think anything of me but the purrfect Tennessee woman? Now if that sounds like a goal I want to achieve in my lifetime - sliding in and NOT being foreign - then dude, you got another thing coming.

Think of me as the crunchy, utterly out of place broccoli on a plate, mingled in between a hunk of bbq ribs, themselves slathered with a sauce that makes your arteries squeak like a ventilator that has just busted its last ball bearing, a mountain of mash the size of McKinley and some buttered corn on the cob that slips through your fingers like your 2 year old who doesn’t want to go to bed.  

As Mr. Melville would say:  Call me Broccoli!

~ Written for Strangers in Strange LandsBritt Permien is a graphic designer who left behind the foreign climes of Germany for the familiar comforts of Britain and British Colombia. 

Monday, 2 July 2012

The expat brat pack

By: Mia

As a child of wanderers, I have always felt like a foreigner. I do even now, after more than a decade in the UK. I've discovered that looking foreign invites people to put you in a neat little box. 

Not Greek - honest.
With freckles and curly hair in Hong Kong, I certainly looked the part of the expat brat. But in Cyprus it was trickier, because I could pass for a native. On discovering that I am not Greek-Cypriot, the common response was “Are you sure? Because you look Greek and your name ends in ‘OU’.

I always found the insinuation that I do not know my OWN ORIGINS mildly annoying but extremely amusing. 

The 'where are you from' question tends to get people truly confused. They don't get the answer they expect, so they usually try with increasing desperation to find the correct pigeon hole for me. 

I have fine tuned my answers over the years. This is a typical exchange:

“So where are you from?"

"Many places."

"Where did you grow up?” 

"My parents traveled a lot."

“OK, so where are your parents from?”

"My father is from Brittany and my mother is an Egyptian Jew brought up in Rio, then London."

"And where did you go to school?"

"Paris, Jerusalem, Cannes, Hong Kong, Cyprus, London."

Then, with escalating panic over the seemingly impossible but strangely necessary task of finding my ONE TRUE ORIGIN, they ask the clincher question: "Hah! Where were you BORN?”

Here I grin like a happy Cheshire cat grin and pull out my aces: “Tokyo.”

~ Part of Strangers in Strange Lands. Mia Navellou is is a voice-over artist based in London, however her ONE TRUE ORIGIN is always liable to change at any time without prior notice. You can ask her "why London?" if you like, but your line of questioning is likely to end in futility and frustration.