Americans Make The Movies (And At Times, We’re Really Sorry)

I’ve spent much of the last 25 years often as the (only) American in the room – be it with family, friends, or workplace colleagues. As you know if you visit here regularly, I’ve now also spent several years writing novels in which I’ve created characters sourced from some of my (especially early) “travel” and “expat” experiences. They are full of types of people I’ve encountered, and even cherished, and what I’ve seen here in Europe.

I can’t begin to list the nationalities I’ve met in just London: nearly every European country; Africans from Egypt and Morocco all the way to South Africa; Afro-Caribbeans; Middle Easterners; Indians; Chinese; other Asians; Canadians; Australians; New Zealanders; Brazilians; even a few other South Americans. And all the religions: not only Christians of course, but Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. It feels like a far more “diverse” city than even New York.

I will always remember a Pakistani student, right after 9/11. He offered me personal condolences. He flat out called the attackers “terrorists”: no qualifications, no hesitation.

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A World Of Distractions

Enough of this and this is how you DON’T finish a manuscript. My wife had to be in central London early Friday. So we drove from Wiltshire to Enfield (the M4 again, but no Sara Bareilles this time) on Thursday night to sleep over at my in-laws.

London, Thursday evening. Temperature in centigrade. It's not Buffalo.
London, Thursday evening. Temperature in centigrade. It’s not Buffalo.

I was to spend the day at their house. I had brought along my Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (as well as all other required electronics). I thought I’d have a few hours to do some writing quietly.

What on earth was I thinking?

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Always Be “Cautious” Worldwide

In the wake of the terror in Paris, unsurprisingly the U.S. State Department has issued a “Worldwide Caution” for U.S. citizens:

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Naturally it is very difficult to “watch everything.” But you aren’t being urged to hide under a bed and stay home and away from every pub. The gist of a “caution” like this is to remind us to be extra-mindful at certain locations, and be particularly alert to what’s going on around us, wherever we are.

Of course “caution” in daily life can’t prevent one simply from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On July 7, 2005, when we lived in north London, I happened to drive to work that day. I also regularly took the London Underground’s Piccadilly Line – which was attacked by a suicide bomber that morning.

But as we know being at home in the U.S. is hardly a guarantee of safety either. Consider, for example, the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. That to me seems the closest comparison to what Paris has endured for the last several days.

I’ve been to the U.S. Embassy in London several times over the years. Once you get past the heavy U.S. military security, you’re “inside the United States” in a way. That reality makes it, and other U.S. embassies and consulates, “magnets” for protests and even possible violence.

Looking South from Upper Brook Street at the new security pavillions and entrance area. [Photo on U.S. Embassy, London web page.]
Looking South from Upper Brook Street at the new security pavillions and entrance area. [Photo on U.S. Embassy, London web page.]
Occasionally, there are “anti-U.S.” demonstrations in the vicinity – although never too close; British authorities don’t permit that. But they can be near enough that you could “blunder” into something by accident – which is also the sort of thing a “caution” like this wants you to be aware of as a visitor. Especially when you are around anything “American,” open your eyes a bit wider, be cognizant of what’s happening around you, and don’t, for example, wander into the midst of some “anti-American” demonstration because you’re snapping photos of buildings.

The Embassy is apparently due to relocate from its current location at historic Grosvenor Square to a larger building that’s also more “secure.” In Britain. Shows the world we live in now, and probably will for the forseeable future.

A last thought here: Vive la France !

Snow In England – Don’t Leave The House

It hasn’t snowed here overnight in London – fortunately. Parts of the country to the north got a several inches, though. That led to the predictable abandoned cars, stranded motorists, and people seeking refuge in churches, etc., and so on.

The BBC reporting on a couple of British snow. [Screen capture by me.]
The BBC reporting on a couple of British snow. [Screen capture by me.]
Yorkshire gets snowfall, and several inches is almost never a laughing matter anywhere. Still, England in a snow generally is perhaps best-described as a lot like snow in, say, Atlanta: it happens in winter occasionally, but no one ever seems honestly prepared for it. Local governments don’t own garages full of plows and salters. It just isn’t worth the investment for a couple of days a year of snow.

When it snows even a couple of centimeters/inches in southern England especially, it’s utter chaos. I will never forget about a decade ago taking 9 hours to drive roughly 10 miles in north London. A dusting or so fell in a late afternoon, and by the time we (in my then office) all had left work – early! – at around 4pm, the buses weren’t running, the Tube was shut, and the trains were a mess.

As for the roads, don’t ask. No one in southern England knows what a winter tire is of course. Far worse, some people seem not to comprehend how to drive in snow. First of all, you take it easy. Snow is, after all, uh, slippery.

Cars hit each other at traffic lights, or slid off roundabouts. Some drivers were going too slowly to take hills and got stuck; or others took them too quickly, got to the top and slid down the other side and crashed into parked cars. I saw several drivers give up, turn their cars off, and walk away.

It was surreal. It was like a Hollywood, end of the world, disaster flick. I was waiting for Morgan Freeman to rap on my car window.

But I made it home…. around 1am.

To add to today’s “fun,” King’s Cross train station in London is actually closed due to “overrunning engineering works.” Seriously. No fiction author would dare invent this stuff. If you wrote it, you’d get laughed for being totally unbelievable. ;-)

The “Power” Of Fiction: A Clarification

Yesterday, in my latest engrossing interview with myself, I had noted to myself:

….I told you in September that no one in the books is a real person. They are drawn from people I’ve known over the years, but none are any one individual. These books are FICTION!

That’s not 100 percent accurate. It applies firmly to the first book, Passports. However, there is one real-life walk-on in its sequel, Frontiers:

“No, thank you. I’m fiiiiiine,” [Kam] smiled as she spoke into his ear and stretched out the word “fine” as well. “I was thinking we could have one drink here, and then walk up the road. There’s a new restaurant there I’ve been hoping to try. It’s too loud here to talk!”

I mentioned this previously. Several months after Kam passed away in February, I wrote a scene that places her in a fictionalized version of a club we had been with her in London. I also deliberately incorporated her into the story at the age 27 she had been in 1995.

Free Stock Photo: Morning sun with a tree in the foreground
Free Stock Photo: Morning sun with a tree in the foreground

She’d known about my writing Passports. We had a single conversation about it in the summer of 2013, and I will always remember her huge grin as she urged me on. She thought the idea for the book was fantastic.

Thus the “power” of fiction. Kam died before she ever saw the finished Passports. But I’ve kept her with us in Frontiers. :-)

Hope you’re having a good Friday….

“Delays, delays, delays”

For some reason, among all my London commuting on trains or in traffic I clearly remember one episode years ago of being stuck on the Underground’s Piccadilly line in north London. As the train waited motionless for what seemed like interminable minutes just outside a station (it was probably Arnos Grove), the driver came on the public address system and explained there’d been a problem at the station moments before and that he had to wait for verbal confirmation to proceed. We all heard him sigh and mumble, “Delays, delays, delays….”

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a subway train
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a subway train

What does that have to do with this post? It’s that I won’t get Frontiers published tomorrow. And I’m thoroughly annoyed at myself over the “delay.”

Yesterday, I found several more “tiny errors,” including the word “talking” where it should have appeared as “taking.” I’ve only read that chapter about, oh, half a dozen times recently. And I’ve also run it through Word’s grammar check? I don’t understand….

Not exactly something to put me in the best frame of mind. I desperately wanted it out for Kam’s birthday, which was November 9th. But I also thought to myself what she might say if I could tell her. With her warm smile, she would probably observe something like, “Rob, it’s soooo nice of you, but don’t release it for me if you’re not happy with it. Get it the way you want it. C’mooooon, now….” (She often softly drew out words for emphasis.)

So I will “scrub” Frontiers a bit more for a few days. I feel better finally telling you all. I had become increasingly grouchy as I realized I would not make my self-imposed deadline.

I’ve been at this since January. A few days more to “make sure” is neither here nor there. Everyone, do please try to control your eager anticipation for a little while longer. ;-)

Trent Country Park Obelisk

On a rainy English – near Bristol – Monday, how about a photo taken about 22 hours ago, on a sunny Sunday on the edge of London?:

The Trent Country Park Obelisk, London. [Photo by me, 2014.]
The Trent Country Park Obelisk, London. [Photo by me, 2014.]

The inscription on the base (somewhat above the flowers left on the ground; I have no idea who had left them or why) reads: “To the memory of the birth of George Grey, Earl of Harold, son of Henry and Sophia, Duke and Duchess of Kent.”

Interesting addendum, shared on the British Listed Buildings site:

The following should be added to the above description “The date of 1702, possibly added when the obelisk was moved to Trent Park, is incorrect. The Earl of Harold was born in 1733 and died in infancy.

Hmm. A bit of Monday morning history, too. :-)

Sworn To Secrecy

Not exactly an uplifting Monday post. For that, I apologize in advance. Sorry.

Sunday evening, my wife got an email from a friend whom we, and most everyone else, already know has a serious, long-term illness. She wrote that she has just been told she probably has only months to live. She noted that the only person who knows that is – unsurprisingly – her husband (they have no children).

And now, so does my wife; she’s second. She asked my wife not to tell anyone else; but, naturally, my wife immediately told me. However, I don’t really count as someone else, because I’m essentially a “dead end,” a cul-de-sac: I’m certainly not going to tell anyone.

There I was yesterday morning, thinking, oh, I’ll have a quiet day and try to “de-stress.” In my creative cocoon, I was seeing light at the end of the latest tunnel: the sequel is almost done. Finally, that struggle is nearing its end.

How unimportant the likes of that always seems whenever we are unexpectedly thrust back into unforgiving, actual reality.

View of a section of Trent Park, London, at dusk. [Photo by me, 2014]
View of a section of Trent Park, London, at dusk. [Photo by me, 2014]

Earlier this year, we’d already endured the worst death I have ever experienced. “I wonder if that’s what they told Kam?” was my knee-jerk response when my wife told me about this, more distant, friend. Later, we tried to lose ourselves in the first episode of the newest season of Downton Abbey.

Life is full of harsh moments like this. Yet this is new to me: What does one do with information like this when you are asked to keep it in confidence? The person facing the terminal illness has shared what she has been told of her fate, yet where does that leave those few who are told and then sworn to secrecy?

All I can say is that, having slept on it, possessing such information leaves me with a guilty sense of awful insider knowledge. Even if keeping it “quiet” is based on the best of intentions (to spare feelings, worry, etc.), important people are being left out of the loop; and they shouldn’t be. Ultimately, in my humble opinion, it’s never fair to them.

Presidential Stamps

Going through those old family photos on Sunday, we also found a large envelope. It had been sent in the 1920s to London by ancestors of my wife who were living in California. I noticed the stamps – and the prices:

1920s U.S. stamps. [Photo by me, 2014.]
1920s U.S. stamps. [Photo by me, 2014.]
“Whoa,” I said to my wife. “Andrew Jackson and John Tyler stamps? 17 cents to mail that big envelope from the U.S. That was a lot of money in those days.”

“Tyler?” she asked.

“John Tyler,” I repeated. “He was a president in the early 1840s. He followed William Henry Harrison, who’d followed Martin van Buren.”

Tyler she didn’t recall. But she knows van Buren.

Our family happens to be Martin fans. :-)

******SPOILER ALERT******

******If you have not seen Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn STOP reading here.******

“Think they’re worth anything?” she asked me.

I shook my head. Somehow, I suspect they aren’t likely worth a fortune. ;-)

History Stuffed In A Drawer

Yesterday, at my in-laws, my wife and I went through old family photos and letters. We did so at the request of a distant relation. She believed some snaps of her close relatives might have been scattered in among them.

She thought so because the stash had been held by my father-in-law’s aunt. That aunt had been kind of a “family historian.” She died without children about 10 years ago, and my father-in-law had inherited most of her possessions – including all these photographs.

Well, the historian in me salivated as we thumbed through them. I couldn’t get over them. There are just a few samples. [All photos reproduced, Copyright © 2014 by R. J. Nello.]

The first two below look like they could’ve worked for Harry Selfridge:

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Very serious:

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Not as serious:

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Posturing (the man on the left has a cigarette hanging from his mouth; the one of the right, a pipe):

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“1941”: that year, and the photographer’s name, are all it says on this photo:

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This last is of my wife’s future great-uncle and great-aunt on their wedding day in 1943 – he in RAF uniform:

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That one immediately above is a rarity: few of the pictures have names, dates and locations written on the back. Arrgh! Don’t you just hate that!

They were taken, we estimate, mostly between about 1900-1950.

My father-in-law was going to throw those photos (and others like them) out because there’s no need to keep them any longer. But just because few, or no one, now living remember these people any longer is beside the point. The photos are amazing and take us back to another era.

Needless to say, none of them will end up in the trash if I have anything to say about it! :-)
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Today is September 1. Coincidentally, Nazi Germany invaded Poland on this date on in 1939. Britain and France would declare war on Germany on September 3, and World War II had begun.