Catch the fall edition of Overland Journal for my light-hearted look at life on the other side of the pond – out now!
Time, suspended. In gathering stillness
we breathe, and the pregnant air
hushes our expectations.
Night is come, mid-morning,
lulling the birds to sleep
and we wait
then huffed away on an ancient breeze
old as the universe
cool as the ocean’s deep.
Them: So, when you lived in London –
Me: I didn’t live in London; I lived in England.
Them (thoughtful silence): Um…what’s the difference between London and England?
Me: (Bangs head against wall).
Nothing focuses the mind on a chilly November morning like a broken central heating system. So started my Monday. The flawless blue sky had me temporarily fooled until I crept out of bed to feed the kettle and put the cat on. I was greeted by an arctic atmosphere and absolute silence where the industrious hum of the furnace should have been. Dr Nick makes an urgent call to the maintenance guy, and during the conversation inadvertently refers to me as his fiancée. I am touched, and delighted. Dr Nick’s ‘once bitten, twice shy’ approach to anything resembling marriage has been part of a difficult journey for us, so now I feel slightly less bad about accidentally calling him ‘my husband’ last week at the library.
Fortunately Dick, our repair man (‘Dick’s Fix-It’) is an efficient and ebullient soul who is on the doorstep within the hour. ‘You must be the fiancée. Cute! You have the same accent as Nick’. I launch enthusiastically into the full 5-minute version of the big love story and, looking only slightly uncomfortable, he replies ‘Um…if you could just show me where the thermostat is…’. Note to self: Arizonan men do not necessarily want to hear a big old love story when they have only just met you and are trying to get on with their day’s work.
It was the thermostat’s fault, as it turned out. Blown at some point by the electric storms during monsoon season, was Dick’s best guess. After some fiddling with wires and one minor electric shock later (‘Nah, I’m kinda used to it’), it was all fixed.
Half an hour later we are best buddies. Dick has just bought a ’91 Harley-Davidson from a Vietnam vet, and we are well into the ‘great rock concerts I have witnessed’ theme. ‘Grateful Dead. Man, I miss those guys’ says Dick, wistfully, as the conversation comes back to our prospective engagement.
‘I proposed to my wife over a bottle ‘n’ a half of Jack Daniels’ roars Dick. ‘Next mornin’ I pretended to not remember a thing about it. But my wife, she remembered every word!’
As we shake hands again, and make vague promises to get together at a decent gig some time, I make my second mental note of the morning: must buy a bottle of Jack Daniels next time I go shopping.
I was greatly encouraged by the overwhelmingly supportive reaction to my previous essay ‘The New 9/11’. Having begun this series as a light-hearted look at life in the USA from the point of view of a newly-arrived immigrant, I fear that the theme may now take a darker turn, at least in the short term. I spent the past two days (has it really been only two days?) in a state of shock, as have most of my friends. By Wednesday morning I felt like I had aged twenty years overnight. My body ached; I couldn’t get warm. I felt like we were all survivors of a massive tragedy, hugging each other as though clinging to an upturned life raft after hitting the iceberg. That evening, I met my friend J.P. outside the theatre, ‘Welcome to America’, he said.
The irony is that, having spent so many months and so many thousands of dollars and pounds trying to get into the USA, I am now planning my escape. My timing, as far as emigration is concerned, was seriously awry. Despite the reassurances of my friends that as a legal permanent resident I probably won’t be on the list of deportees, I am of the firm opinion that
1) you can’t trust the word of a man whose policies right now are changing from day to day (I will scrap Obamacare, I will keep some bits of Obamacare) and
2) I cannot in good conscience remain in a country whose president-elect encourages hatred against, well, almost anyone who is not a heterosexual, white, able-bodied male.
My observation, for what it’s worth, is that between now and next January when Trump takes office, there will be a process of ‘normalization’. The public have such short memories and the shocking actions and rhetoric will be forgotten; the pageantry and razzamatazz will blind the populace so that the lawsuits, threats and mockery become acceptable, become the norm. And that is the point at which it all becomes much more dangerous.
I am very careful not to take everything I read at face value. I choose which news sources I read, I don’t have television. I don’t watch Fox News. Snopes is a pretty good fact-checker. I am not clever enough to argue and debate politics, and really don’t know how to respond to those who say ‘He might do something really good!’ or ‘It works both ways – if we support Trump then we are accused of being racists!’. Well, yes. If you really think Trump is actually quite a good chap then I’m sorry, but you are supporting his bigotry and his intolerance.
Right now the USA is the laughing stock of the western world. We thought Great Britain was bad enough with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, but this takes, as we say, the biscuit. Prior to moving to America, I truly thought the grass was greener over here. We looked up to the USA as a world leader, progressive, inspirational. Now, looking back over the past twelve months since I arrived with one suitcase and a heart filled with hope for a new beginning, I realize that the USA is a third world nation. Its lack of affordable healthcare, the poor education of much of its population, treatment of minorities and gun culture mean that life is cheap. The general air of civility barely masks the undercurrent that a big fight will break out at any moment, like watching rival drunks in a late-night bar. Strangers strike up conversations with me, bragging about the bravado they display when they shout at Latinos to ‘go home’. I want to shout back at them ‘I’m an immigrant too!’ but I am too much a coward. I almost resent the fact that I am considered ‘acceptable’ because my skin happens to be white and my accent middle-class. I feel like the banished writer of Brecht’s poem, dismayed when the Nazis don’t burn his books along with the rest of the ‘forbidden literature’. ‘Burn me!’ I want to yell. ‘Burn me!’.
Over the past few weeks Americans have cast their votes, but today will go down in history as the new 9/11. 9th November, the day America self-destructed. In my head I’d been mentally preparing for this by thinking of it as ‘Brexit all over again’, but in fact it is far, far worse than that. This morning we find ourselves living in Donald Trump’s dream world, and for some of us it is not a restful sleep.
I awoke this morning to discover I now live in Clusterfuck, Arizona. A small, self-important Republican town, which, with delusions of grandeur, calls itself a city. The Walmart has an aisle of preppers supplies for ‘keeping your family safe in troubled times’. Government buildings sport polite signs asking patrons not to take their firearms inside. There is an air of resolute expectancy, as if the zombie apocalypse could happen at any moment. And, in a way, it has happened today.
Last night when I arrived home my husband and a friend, both university professors, were watching the results come in. They had both been crying. We watched with mounting horror, hugging each other and steadily hitting the gin bottle in the hope that it might soften the blow when it came. But it didn’t. Our friend is married to a beautiful South American woman who was having to cope with the news down in Phoenix, alone, with her two small children. He was torn between wanting to call her to find out if she was OK, and not wanting to call for fear of waking her with the bad news if she was already asleep. We discussed exit strategies, noting that the Canadian immigration website had already crashed earlier in the evening. Trump’s ‘no foreigners’ policy is already beginning to take effect, before he is even in office. Our friends will probably escape to South America. As a recent immigrant I’m on a temporary Green Card until I can apply for citizenship in two years’ time. Now I don’t know if that will happen, or if Trump intends to deport all non-Americans, regardless of family ties. He’s not been exactly clear on this issue. Possibly in my favor is the fact that I’m white, although being a slightly overweight, left-handed LGBT female will probably count against me. Who knows what criteria the Witchfinder General will apply once he gets the chance. Above all, the most frightening thing is what he will do with the nuclear codes when he sees that big, shiny red button. Like all spoilt little boys, Trump will want to push it first. We cry ourselves to sleep.
This morning my Facebook page fills with sympathetic comments from friends back in the UK, but none of them can be feeling the desperation that we feel here in America. Being an immigrant in a small-minded, insular mountain town is not easy. I stand out, I talk funny, my UK qualifications don’t count for anything here; I can’t get work. Trump’s strategy has worked; the fear is contagious. I don’t know how people will react to me today when I leave the house. Our tenuous bubbles of safety have burst, and xenophobic America is seeping in.
I hear a snapping sound from the garden. Something has shorted the electric fence. That’s how I feel about America this morning. The thin wires which yesterday kept our garden safe from predators have broken down. We have been wrong about everything, and now we don’t know how to keep ourselves safe. Driving into town, a deer leaps into the road from the creek, as if sacrificing itself as roadkill is the preferred option to waiting for the zombie apocalypse of Trump’s Brave New World.
This time last year, Dr Nick and I were travelling in Europe. We spent two weeks in Italy, where he delivered a lecture at the University of Bologna, and then we moved on to Serbia for a week-long conference. This year, by way of contrast, we are more or less confined to barracks. A radical hysterectomy means that the furthest I can travel at the moment is, by means of a very tentative stagger, to the end of the road and back, and this can take half an hour or so. The last ten days have passed in a fog of (prescribed) narcotics, sleep and frustration as I take small steps, literally, back to fitness. I have learned that I am a very impatient patient. It’s not that I was a super-active person prior to having what feels like half my internal organs removed, but being unable to accomplish simple tasks such as putting on a pair of socks, or reaching up to take a plate out of a cupboard makes me feel old and helpless. Dr Nick has, of course, been an absolute angel. The night before I went into hospital he brought a dish of honeysuckle petals to my bedside ‘to help you sleep.’ The yellow, green, and white petals infused the air with invisible clouds of icing-sugar sweetness, and I felt truly loved.
My surgeon’s mantra, when I saw him this morning, was ‘small steps’, and he’s right. Each day I am growing a little stronger, although a brief bout of over-confidence yesterday resulted in my baking a fruit cake and going for a walk, with the inevitable result that by the evening I was exhausted and very, very sore. Today Dr Nick made me promise to rein it in a bit and take it easy, hence the reason why I am now sitting in a shady spot in the garden, watching the birds and applying a healthy dose of positive thinking towards getting better. It helps that I now have cake to speed my recovery.
My beloved’s kitchen is poorly equipped for adventures in baking. I doubt that he has ever baked a cake, so this combined with the fact that I was botching an English recipe using American measurements and ingredients, means that the resulting fruit cake tastes even more delicious.
Now, baking a cake would normally be a pretty straightforward affair. However, I hadn’t anticipated the several ways in which this simple venture would highlight, once more, the differences between England and America. It’s impossible to buy cake as we know it in the UK. Ask for ‘cake’ in Arizona and you are offered either deep-fried and heavily glazed donuts, or blousy confections smothered in artificial whipped crème. I was a woman on a mission, to make a good, old-fashioned fruit cake, the sort of cake which would accompany a lovely cup of strong British tea. My first challenge came when shopping for ingredients. After much searching, I was able to track down a bag of ‘self-rising flour’, a bottom-shelf novelty item at my local Walmart, and I managed to cause further confusion by asking if they had sultanas. The humble, juicy sultana is another thing which is clearly not ‘a thing’ in Arizona. Nor is the glace cherry. Or mixed spice. Who’d have thought? Some serious improvisation and substitution took place, with finely-chopped apricots and cranberries going in the mix with the raisins (yes, I found those, although not in the baking aisle at Walmart; raisins are strictly ‘snacking goods’, apparently).
My beloved possesses neither mixing bowl nor, until today, a cake tin, but with a few work-arounds I was able to turn out a jolly good almost-British fruit cake. I bent, gingerly, to the oven and lovingly lifted the pan to pride of place on the worktop. Warm, spicy, and crammed with fruit (the cake, that is), Dr Nick looked on in wonder as if unable to comprehend how on earth his kitchen could produce such a thing. Mind you, this relatively simple task had taken me most of the day, if you count the time it took to buy the ingredients and equipment. As far as I was concerned, it was a major achievement. My child-bearing days might be over, but I can still create, cajole and nurture something beautiful into existence. It might not be another European ‘Grand Tour’, but, as my surgeon would say, it is a small step to recovery.