I love hearing from readers of Finding Myself in Britain; it’s a privilege and a joy to hear the stories they share. Such as Karen Morton, who got in touch with me recently. She embraced a new adventure at 70, marrying an Englishman and moving to the Lake District! I loved hearing of her art project to engage with people in her village – just brilliant how she has used her creativity and artistic gifts to give back to the community, and make new friends. She opened her email to me saying, “I feel like I have a new friend!” I feel the same, as I introduce her to you. Don’t miss her amazing portraits, toward the bottom of the interview.
I came to live in England three years ago – a new love and a new life – at the age of 70! It’s never too late to start over! I met my husband, a fellow artist, when I was here on a painting trip in 2011. I would never have imagined that I would have a whole new country just a few years later.
I had the experience of saying good-bye to my house and property in the Colorado mountains and walking away from most of my “stuff”, chanting all the while, “It’s just stuff… it’s just stuff… it’s just stuff.” I already lived a distance from my two daughters and grandchildren so things are not that different. They love visiting me here. Now I feel like a four-year-old with my nose pressed against the window, delighting in every new thing I see.
I’ve had so many surprises here, such as it stays green! Having grown up in Michigan and spent the last 30 years in the mountains of Colorado where there was snow on the ground 9 months of the year, I was delighted to find that it rarely snows here. Furthermore, the grass stays green even in winter, making the rolling hills of the Lake District where I live now very beautiful all year, even with grey skies. I’ve even learned to love the many colors of grey that contrast so nicely with the green. I’m also surprised at how long it stays light in the summertime, and how dark the winter is – never having realized how far north these islands are.
Another surprise was how warmly I’m received as an American. As soon as I open my mouth it’s obvious, of course! For the first time in my life, I have an accent! But whether it’s someone I meet in a shop or people I meet in the village, their eyes seem to light up when they learn my nationality.
I play the hammered dulcimer and was surprised to discover many opportunities to play it, joining in with local musicians. I’m learning lots of new songs – the English, Scottish and Irish folk songs sound particularly good on this instrument.
Maybe it’s my age, but learning to drive on the left (as opposed to “wrong”) side of the road has been a challenge to me. I was dismayed to learn that I had to take both a written and a practical driving test to get a British driver’s license. (My American license was good for only one year after becoming a resident.) I took some lessons from a very brave driving instructor in the village. At first I had a hard time figuring out where the left side of the car was and kept running up on the curb or cutting corners! Learning to shift with my left hand was a challenge too. The roads are so narrow and instead of a nice shoulder, you have stone walls or hedges inches away from your left-hand mirror. But I’m quite at home behind the wheel now.
Being interested in linguistics, I have kept an on-going lexicon of words and phrases that are different – 17 pages long so far. When I first arrived I told my husband I was going on a walk to explore the village. He said, “Fine, but make sure you stay on the pavement.” Why, I wondered, not knowing that is what they call sidewalks. I thought he wanted me to walk down the middle of the streets!
People kept asking me if I was alright. Even people I didn’t know, like shop keepers. Did I look faint or ill? Then I figured out it was just their way of saying, “How ya doing?”
There are some very funny expressions too, like “She’s all fur coat and no knickers!”
I nearly drove off the road when at a construction area there was a large sign saying, “Cats’ eyes removed.” Why would anyone do that?! Found out that is what they call lane reflectors.
People’s eyes widened in surprise when I said that the uniform of many old men where I came from was a cowboy hat, jeans and suspenders. “Suspenders” are what they call garter belts here! Quite a funny image, actually!
Last year, in an effort to get to know people in my village here in the Lake District, I gave myself the goal of painting one hundred 12 X 12 inches oil paint portraits of neighbors. The response was delightful. I ended up with 123 such portraits. Each person agreed to sit for me for 2 hours. I was convinced to turn it into a book with a brief write-up about each person. I had an exhibition of all 123 paintings in the village hall the day after Boxing Day and people could then take their portraits home. Now I’m working on a sequel: “100 Dogs of Holme”. What fun! People love talking about their dogs.
I’m interviewing each dog for the parallel book to the one I wrote of the people in the village, with a little write-up about the dog to go with each portrait. Their responses have been hilarious. Dogs seem to bring out humor in people as they view their lives from the point of view of their dogs. Some of my questions are: “What is your heritage and how did you come to live with this pack? What is your occupation? What is the worst trouble you have been in? Do you know any tricks? What do your people not know about you? What is your advice to young pups?”
The question about the worst trouble they’ve been in has the funniest answers. A large golden retriever managed to get himself totally inside of a dead sheep while his elderly owners had him out on a beach walk far from home. Then there is the standard poodle who ate a £20 note! It was the daughter’s first pay from her first job so it was important to them. They waited 2 days and out it came! They put on rubber gloves, washed it off and sent it away and got a new note! The dogs’ occupations have included, among others, director of security for a garage, lady-in-waiting, children’s entertainer, interior decorator, therapist, building supervisor, personal trainer, ball player, gardener’s helper and psychiatric nurse!
I have found that the church is the warm, beating heart of the village. Whenever I “put myself in God’s way” there I feel a peacefulness and serenity that helps me know I made the right decision in changing my life to live here. Unfamiliar hymns and slight differences in familiar prayers make me stop and pay attention and thoughtfully prepared sermons allow me to really reflect on the messages. The warmth of friendship I feel there is comforting as well.
I would tell people making a major change like this to try to stop looking over their shoulders to think about what they left behind. Instead, live in the present and try to see the world with new eyes. And start writing your book right now!