Here’s a sentence you probably don’t hear very often: we’ve come back to the city that never sleeps for a good rest. After a whirlwind ten day visit to London, squeezing in more birthday parties, lunches, dinners, and communal dog walks than we’d normally manage in the course of two months, in addition to sorting out a small mountain of post, a rattling oven and a downstairs loo with a lacklustre flush, L1 and I returned to Manhattan happy but exhausted.
“It’s weird, isn’t it,” L1 said as we hauled our suitcases out of the lift on our floor. “Do you feel weird?”
“I wonder when it will stop feeling weird.”
I wonder that too. When does a transatlantic life begin to seem completely normal? When do you stop saying to yourself, as you land in each place, Gosh this is surreal, just this morning we were in …. I must ask my parents, who’ve been spending six months a year in each of Montreal and Sarasota for what feels like forever. Do they experience this kind of dislocation, this sense of weirdness? Or do they take it in their stride, rolling from one place to the other and back again with nary a second thought?
Our eighteen year old son had this advice to offer: really you’ve not been there very long, so of course it’s going to feel strange every time you go back. It’s like when I get back to uni after a weekend at home. Or like that first term at Epsom, when I arrived back at school on a Monday morning after a weekend at home, feeling shell shocked. But it will get easier. You’ll get used to it. Give it time.
So here’s another question for you: when did the eighteen year old son get so wise? And when did our children start advising us, rather than it always being the other way around? Age sixteen? Seventeen? Eighteen? It seems to have happened without our noticing, and now I find I solicit the advice of our three all the time. It’s marvellous not to have to always be the one with the answers. And I can’t tell you how fantastic it is that the two girls have taken over the shared parenting of the boy. Whenever I have some tricky issue to discuss with him, or something to admonish him for, one of the of the girls will say already done that, or got that covered mum. It’s such a blessed relief. And I’m sure they manage to dole out their advice in a far more eighteen-year-old friendly way than we could ever manage.
But back to the business of this transatlantic life. It’s not half as unusual as I might once have imagined. I’ve been befriended by one woman who’s been making the journey back to England once every ten days for the past five years. And this week, thanks to an invite from my friend E (herself an experienced transatlantic hopper), I had coffee with eight New York dwelling women, half of whom spend much of their time flying back and forth across the ocean. One woman spends all of her time actually on the ocean. She lives on something called The World, which is sort of like an apartment building crossed with a cruise liner. The hundred or so residents make a plan for the year, deciding where they want to go and how long they want to stay there. Then they set sail, making temporary homes in their chosen ports. The woman said that this year they’d spent five weeks living in the Antarctic, in addition to doing long stints in India, Australia, and parts of South America. She flies back to New York for board meetings. I wonder if she also flies back for a rest.
The place where we all met for coffee was the wonderfully eccentric Shakespeare and Co, a purveyor of new and second-hand books which is also part coffee shop, part library and part printing press. (Who said the Upper East Side was dull?) The two original Shakespeare and Co establishments were in Paris, the first one opened by the American Sylvia Beach in 1919. It served as a gathering place for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and James Joyce, but was closed in 1941 during the German occupation and never reopened. The second Parisian Shakespeare and Co, modelled on Beach’s shop, was opened by another American, George Whitman, in 1951, and continues to serve as a purveyor of new and second hand books, an antiquarian bookseller and a free reading library for the public.
The continued existence of Shakepeare and Co on both the Upper East Side and the Left Bank is a heartening reminder that there is, after all, life beyond and after Amazon. The New York shop isn’t related to its Paris counterparts in any way but by name, but I like to think of it as being inspired by them. I also like to think about the spirits of Hemingway, Pound and Joyce wafting around there, lending a small amount of their erudition to all who sit at the little round tables and write, listening to Bach and Mendel, ordering cortado after cortado just to be able to stay long enough to finish a chapter.
On Friday I walked to Shakespeare and Co in weather that can only be described as a mixed up mix of everything – icy cold, gale force wind, rain, snow and slush. Be careful out there, Robert, the doorman, warned when I set out. And he was right to warn me, because I skidded much of the way, borne along the slick sidewalk by a ferocious wind that turned my umbrella inside out within minutes and very nearly blew me into the path of oncoming traffic at the corner of Lexington and 66th. I arrived at Shakespeare and Co looking thoroughly bedraggled, wet hair plastered to my scalp, leather gloves, trainers and trouser knees soaked through. Serves me right for being so smug about the mild weather we’d been experiencing while the UK battled with heavy snow. Spring is not, after all, on its way.
Is it possible, though, that in the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Florida, some sensible and long overdue gun legislation might finally be on its way? I hardly dare to believe Trump when he says something must be done and talks the language of age limits and strong – very strong, unbelievably strong – background checks being implemented. If he manages to beat back the hard-core, gun-loving Republican base and deliver on his promises, we might be persuaded to forgive him one or two of his many sins of the past year.
Nah. You’re right. It’s not going to happen. A man who just launched an ill-considered tariff war to deflect attention from the facts surrounding Hope Hick’s testimony before Robert Mueller’s investigative team and her subsequent resignation, and the increasingly damaging allegations about his son in law – a man who is today reported as being unglued in the face of the unravelling of his administration – a man who thinks a good use of his presidential time is to engage in a Twitter spat with the actor Alec Baldwin – cannot be counted upon to follow through on a few disingenuous and hastily made comments about gun control.
Our only hope is Mr Mueller himself. Was there ever a man who exuded more calm strength and integrity, whose Mount Rushmore countenance you could trust more? Even if I didn’t see in him a striking resemblance to my father, I’m sure I would feel that way. To echo the words emblazoned above Mueller’s photograph on one of my favourite placards at January’s Women’s March: HURRY UP.
L1 and I watch with interest, along with all of America. Meanwhile, the novel writing is going reasonably well, thank you for asking. Twenty-one thousand words down. I feel sure that Hemingway – whispering sweet encouragements in my ear while I sip on my third cortado – is at least partly responsible.