August 2021

Home-Thoughts from Abroad By Robert Browning

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!

And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower

—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

It seems appropriate to start this, our final book, with the poem that inspired the name of our blog that led to these books. Robert Browning has long been a favourite, and his poem, “Home Thoughts From Abroad” captures the longing for the familiar places of home of all of us who have been overseas for extended periods of time. Our attempts to capture the joy and excitement we felt in travel with the sometime anguished desire just to be among family and friends is what led us to blogging in the first place. It was our effort at connection; our desire to make what we were doing and why we felt called to this life understandable to our children, our grandchildren, and the friends who have supported us with their prayers and their caring for these many years.

Now we are reaching the end of this journey. We have told ourselves that this will be the last posting we accept; that after we have finished our two-year commitment to our present mission in Horsham, we will return to Canada for good. That doesn’t mean we will stop serving the Lord. But it does mean that we will stop doing so in foreign locations.

It is fitting that our last overseas venture be in England, where both our families are from. I was actually born in England, in Colchester, not far from where we are presently living. I have a sister in Lincolnshire and a cousin in Kent, and once we are properly settled with a car and a bank account, we will visit them both. My parents retired to England as well, and we have often visited them in Lincoln and are well familiar with that part of the country. My first overseas visit when I was 11 years old was to my grandmother, at that time still feisty and living by herself in Dollis Hill, not far from Wimbledon.  

England has other resonances for me as well through literature, and not just Robert Browning. I grew up on the tales of Horatio Hornblower, E.M. Forster’s fictionalized stories about Lord Nelson. Throughout my teaching career I have saturated myself with the works of Dickens and Shakespeare, Tennyson and Blake. I have immersed myself in the paintings of Constable and Turner, and the music and clothing of the sixties when I grew up was all from England.

So living in England, while not a homecoming, does have a poignancy and significance that other places we have lived abroad have not. I shall enjoy its quiet country lanes and remote peaks and parks as much as I will the busy cities and streets that crowd this island. We hope to capture some of those experiences in this journal, and trust that many of you, either now on this site, or later when this is committed to a book, will find in these pages something that speaks to your heart as well.

We are all, in one way or another, travelers in this life; citizens of another country beyond sight, but visible through the eyes of faith. The two of us have served the Lord of that country as well as we are able throughout our marriage. If this be our last overseas posting for Him, we cannot think of a finer place.

There are a number of reasons we have come to England for the next two years. Being able to serve the Lord without pay and without having to spend an enormous amount of money on health insurance being one of them. I am a British citizen by birth, so getting on the National Health was not difficult. Nor was finding a place to stay. Flats are not cheap, and furnished flats are a rarity. However, we had an excellent estate agent in Hannah who showed us one that was most suitable.

Getting a bank account proved to be much more difficult, and in fact as of this writing we still don’t have one, despite having reams of identification and sufficient funds waiting for transfer. We have had to be most inventive in response, using colleagues’ bank cards for purchases and reimbursing them with cash, or transferring money from our ‘overseas’ accounts directly to pay for larger purchases.

It was through a combination of both of these things that we were able to buy and insure a car. It is not a new one. Neither of us have owned a new car since we started our new jobs with one nearly five decades ago. But it is a very nice 10-year-old Ford Fiesta with very low mileage. Thankfully it is also an automatic. These roads are difficult enough at our age without having to negotiate a stick shift lefthanded.

We look forward to being able to travel around now to see this beautiful country, and to spend some time with my family in England who we haven’t seen for ten years. Travel adventure, family connection, service to the God who calls us: these are the things that have brought us to England. A car will help facilitate all three.  

Leaving Cayman was not difficult. The Lord had provided a lovely beach condo for our final three weeks, and left us with plenty of time to say goodbye to those we had come to know and love. Our church gave us a nice sendoff, and we splurged on a dinner or two. Leaving Canada was a little harder. We felt our time there had really been cut short by Covid, and there were lots of things that we were not able to do. But at least we had time to see our grandchildren and two of our own children in that time.

But coming to England has posed real challenges for these veteran travelers. Our temporary rental flat that Pam had secured did allow us to clear the Covid hurdles needed to avoid quarantine, thanks again to Pam’s excellent planning and paperwork. We needed a Covid test to fly from Cayman. We got two Covid tests in America to enter Canada, and another one at the border coming in. In order to leave Canada for England we needed to get another Covid test. This time we had to drive to Toronto airport as the test window fell on a Canadian holiday. On arrival in England, we were ushered through the border with no trouble at all, and the notification that our Covid test package had arrived was in the mail slot at our rental flat. We walked around to the post office to get it and completed a further three Covid tests that week, the last basically as we were walking out of the rental.

The rental served other purposes as well. We got Pam’s hard drive upgraded to solid state so it now runs much faster. Unfortunately, the fellow who fixed it also broke both the screen connection and the camera/microphone that Pam needed for her ministry. He was able to fix the screen and we found an external camera/mic in our gear that will have to serve until a more permanent solution can be found. He offered to fix the noisy fan motor. We were polite, but gave him a hard pass on getting his hands on that computer again.

We were also able to track down an agent at a local real estate brokerage who showed us a furnished one-bedroom near the core which we took on sight. Apparently, the Brits don’t go in much for fully furnished rentals, so we had to grab what we could when we could. It is a tiny – 430 square feet – little place: one-bedroom, tiny bathroom, combined kitchen and living room, but it is right across the street from a lovely park and right beside the train station to London. The moving date of September 4 seemed impossibly far away, but our move to the manse made it doable. The signed agreement gave us a document to take to the bank to demonstrate residence.

We initiated the process of applying for a bank account almost as soon as we landed. This is far and away the most difficult to do of all the countries we have lived in. It has been three weeks since we landed, and though we made banking a priority upon landing, we still don’t have an account. Apparently, you need a utilities bill to establish proof of residence. Of course, you need a bank account to sign up for utilities. And round and round it goes. NatWest was our last attempt after five banks expressed no interest at all. There I was able to conduct the acceptance interview in the bank and a very helpful young lady scanned my documents and promised me a bank card in five days. That was nine days ago and I haven’t seen anything yet. We’ve got our fingers crossed.

Not to be deterred, we ventured out into the town and found it delightful. There were parks and town squares and lovely little laneways leading to little cloisters of houses. There is a lovely old church called St. Mary’s and a lovely park in the center of town filled with trees and flowers. And of course there are pubs everywhere. We had to go to one for the traditional Sunday carving, and were not disappointed by the mounds of vegetables, roast potatoes, and of course the Yorkshire pudding.

After a week in our rental flat, during which time I participated in our new mission’s professional development to a school in Central Asia through Zoom, we moved into the guest house that the mission maintains in a presently unoccupied manse. It was here that we were finally able to partially unpack and get ourselves somewhat sorted out until our new flat becomes available in September. We’ve being going out to the Baptist church next door, and were invited to a games night in nearby Southwater by our new colleagues at the mission.

In short, we are finding our feet. We keep telling each other that this will be the last overseas posting before we actually retire back to Canada. It is not easy to uproot at our ages, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. But we have felt the Lord’s presence throughout, and His people have been everywhere, helping us to make this move. We are certain too, that once the dust has settled, that we will find ourselves in a truly lovely part of the world, ready to serve the Lord once again with the gifts and talents He has so graciously given.

Springbank Park

It has been two years since we last saw Liz’s family and nineteen months since we last saw Jon and Nic and their crew. Honestly, given that the Delta variant of Covid is ramping up around the world with many countries facing an imminent fourth wave, we really don’t know when we will be together again. We wanted to pack our days with kid times and to try to make up for some lost experiences.

Jon and Nic and their kids left early to try and squeeze in a road trip on their way home. We had rented a house in Hyde Park so that Liz and the kids could stay with us, which worked out very well. Liz was even able to rent a car and drive to Toronto for an overnight visit with her cousin whom she hadn’t seen for several years. While we babysat the kids we had great walks in the park mostly spent identifying trees, a movie night and plenty of time to enjoy Russ’s skills at Mario Maker. It seemed a little unfair in that he was was creating the games so simply built in endless things that would kill us.

For Russ’s fifth birthday, we had taken him to Build-a-Bear to create his own stuffy. Layla had been looking forward to her own bear building for her fifth birthday but of course that didn’t happen. So, better late than never, we took her to design her own special bear. It was all blue and sparkly with a frilly dress and headband and pink sparkling shoes. All the things that Layla loves. We will hold tight to these memories until we are together again, hopefully in a world that is not dictated by an out of control virus.

Stokes Bay August 1984

When our kids were young we spent many summer days on the beaches of southwestern Ontario and winter days and evenings skiing. Our kids were never happier than when they were surrounded by water and sand and would play contentedly for literally hours on end. Since we lived only about ten minutes from Lake Erie, picnics on the beach were almost a daily activity.

Port Stanley 2021

Since the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and we had all of our water baby grandkids with us in Ontario, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend a day at Port Stanley. Mackie’s fries and orangeade were the first order of the day, of course, and then we headed to the water, which after the warm Caribbean seemed a little chilly!

The beach was ridiculously packed and the waves were frisky but it was so much fun watching the next generation enjoy the beach as much as their parents did. It was such a joy to see our grandchildren have such easygoing fun with their cousins, despite all the months they haven’t been together. Russell thought his cousin Ben could do just anything, and Layla was inseparable from Abi.

Russell happened to celebrate his eighth birthday during this week of travel so he ended up with multiple small celebrations rather than a traditional big birthday party. We had to stop for ice cream at Shaw’s on the way back to town as that also was a regular part of our summer traditions. It seemed appropriate to place a candle on Russ’s ice cream sundae.

We sat on a nearby picnic table and when we were finished cleaning ice cream goop off our faces, we finally let Russell open his gift of Super Mario Maker 2, for which he has been longing for months.

After that it was off for the inevitable photo with Jumbo, St. Thomas’ iconic sculpture that for some obscure reason has to face the town instead of the incoming tourists who are greeted with a nice view of Jumbo’s enormous backside as they drive into town.

All together a happy day for Grandpa and Grandma who waited a long time to see their children and grandchildren and were not disappointed. Thanks to Liz and Jon who travelled many miles to be here and make this all possible.

After several false starts and multiple Covid-19 tests we have finally made it off Cayman. Two years is a very long time to be away from Ontario; separated from family and friends. The obstacles faced in orchestrating a gathering of three families from Cayman, Calgary and Ohio, in London, seemed insurmountable. We are so grateful for our son and daughter and their families who made it happen.

 The restrictions of the day meant that we could not ship any of our belongings to Canada, so in May we mailed ten boxes to our son’s place in Ohio. Since direct flights to Canada where prohibitively expense, we flew to Ohio first where we reorganized our belongings and packed up Jon’s spare car to drive across the border into Canada. Thankfully, quarantine for fully vaccinated Canadians returning to Canada had been dropped two weeks earlier so we were free to move around.

We rented a house in London where we stayed with Liz and her kids while Jon and Nic stayed out in Aylmer with Nicole’s parents. Pat and Wendy have created a mini adventure land for kids at their home with a beautiful heated pool, tree house, zip line and multiple motorized vehicles for the kids to ride. They even got to experiment with an underwater camera. We spent two full days just hanging out together there. It was such a joy to see the five grandkids just enjoying each other and having fun together. We even got to celebrate both Jon and Nic’s birthdays which is a rare treat in our family. And that was just the first two days!

Riding the track through the bush and around the pond on the golf cart.
Boys and their Toys
A at 13
E at 10
Hours and hours spent in the Pool
With the encouragement of her older cousins, L’s swimming skills improved greatly.