Tag Archives: expat

From faux-pas to chutzpah

The old adage that England and America are ‘two countries divided by a common language’ is alarmingly accurate. Since moving to Arizona a year ago from the south-west of England, I continue to be surprised, perplexed, entertained and intrigued by how different these two nations are. So here is my advice on the how-and-how-not tos, the dos and don’ts of avoiding the perils and pitfalls of life in the USA, whilst experiencing a gulf of cultural differences along the way.

You betcha!

Americans are exceptionally positive people. None of your British non-committalism here; everywhere you go you will be met with a cheery “Hi!”, “Enjoy the rest of your day!” “Thank you so much for coming!” which is rather refreshing when you’re used to the passive-aggressive grunting which more often than not closes a conversation back in Blighty. Americans, even when they’re saying no, do so with unbridled enthusiasm. “I’m not going to fit in with your schedule, but, hey! Let’s make another date!” or “I have no intention of doing what you asked me, but I’ll give you my full support!”; “No, you can’t speak to the doctor, even if you’re having a coronary, but hey! Have a nice day!”. The zeal for niceties is quite exhausting.

“You want fries with that?”

The all-American can-do attitude also extends toward the culinary. Everything can be improved upon. Milk? No problem! We’ll add vitamin D! Bread? Absolutely! Added B vitamins or iron! Salt? Iodised!  Butter? Add canola oil!

Fortification of foodstuffs is governed by the FDA in a move which surely borders on that of a nanny state, presumably because the Government knows what’s best for us. Although ‘fortification’ is not mandatory, in reality it is quite difficult to find a supermarket foodstuff that has not been ‘improved’ in some way. And yet, bizarrely, Americans are far more intent on pill-popping over-the-counter meds than almost any other country. The knowledge base of the average American when it comes to pharmacopoeia is astounding. According to the U.S. Department of Education only 13% of adults have a ‘proficient’ reading level* but the average Joe can rattle off an impressive list of six-syllable medications with no problem whatsoever.

Going postal

I’m a big fan of the United States Postal Service. It’s quaint and friendly, with some endearing habits. Every home in town has a mailbox at the end of the drive–no letterboxes in doors here. And all mailboxes have to be of an approved design, in case you go getting any gosh-darned notions about individuality. The post office staff in my town are entertainingly quirky with a wicked sense of humor. This extends right up the hierarchy to the very top, as my significant other discovered when he ordered an ‘adult toy’ from Amazon, causing some controversy when it was impounded by US Customs; a situation which was resolved only after a ‘live chat’ session with a customer service representative. I can’t work out who was more embarrassed. My beloved had the option of keeping a record of the conversation which, rather fortunately, he declined. It’s probably Scotch-taped to someone’s wall right now.

The great outdoors

Speaking as one who has been through the desert on a horse with no name (actually his name was Willy, but I’m not admitting that to anybody) I can confidently say I know a thing or two about wildlife. In the U.K. our main ambition is to protect and preserve, whereas in America it’s all about huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. In England if we inadvertently hit an animal on the road, we will take it to the nearest wildlife hospital. Here in the U.S. you sling it in the back of your truck and take it home for dinner. Mind you, a wandering mule deer will make an infinitely more nourishing meal than a squashed hedgehog.

Road test

Apart from obvious differences such as driving on the right, or as we Brits would have it the wrong side of the road, there are several key points to mastering the joys of vehicular travel in America. This was made patently obvious to me when I had to take the state driving test, which was pretty much a matter of driving once around the block without hitting anything. I admit to being slightly alarmed when the examiner told me to drive forward on the pavement. In England the ‘pavement’ is what we call the sidewalk. You can understand my confusion. Anyway, having neatly jumped that hurdle I encountered a steep learning curve in the form of signal lights. In the U.K. a red light means stop in the same way that ‘no’ means ‘no’.  In America a red light means stop, except when it doesn’t. Turning right, for example. And just to add a bit of excitement pedestrian crossing lights allow people to cross the road against oncoming traffic. Outstanding!

Automatic transmissions are rare in the U.K. and our vehicles are right-hand drive, so at first I found myself regularly reaching for a non-existent shift-stick while simultaneously slamming my left hand against the driver’s door. A year later and I still get in the passenger side to drive if I’m not totally concentrating.

Basically, when driving in America take any rule in the U.K. Highway Code and do the opposite. You won’t go far wrong. Add to this the feel-good factor when you finally get your driver license, complete with the little photograph that’s guaranteed to make you look like a criminal. That, at least, is the same the world over.

Body parts

American: hood. Brit: bonnet. American: trunk. Brit: boot. American: shift. Brit: gear. You may notice an apparel-related theme here. British car parts are named after items of clothing. That is because, like the well-turned-out hipsters we imagine ourselves to be, we like to think of our automobiles as nothing less than beautifully attired extensions of our own fashionable selves.

Staying cool

Air-conditioning is not a thing in England. Temperatures rarely rise above 65°F, so we don’t need it. What we do need is heat, and lots of it, so our cars and homes come equipped with heaters of varying degrees of efficiency. AC is so much a novelty to us Brits that when my husband moved to New Mexico and purchased an old car he would deliberately drive around with the windows closed just to give the impression that his motor was as well-equipped as everyone else’s. That’s the vehicular equivalent of pulling the crotch of your jeans down around your knees to look like a gangsta.

Falling apart at the seams

In the U.K., all vehicles undergo an annual MOT test to ensure road-worthiness. The MOT (Ministry of Transport) test checks things like bodywork, brakes, fuel system, emissions, tires, safety belts, steering and suspension. It even has rules for the color and character spacing of registration plates. It’s illegal to drive a car without an MOT certificate, so if yours fails you have to get it fixed before you can drive it again. This in stark contrast to the USA, where I have seen vehicles held together with nothing more than duct tape and wishful thinking. There’s even one car in my town that has no doors. Thinking about it, that would have solved the problem with my husband’s lack of air-conditioning.

Baby you can drive my car

Before moving to the USA I assumed that Americans all drove fast and recklessly on 9-lane highways. In actual fact driving in my town is a joy. The roads are wider than in England but the speed limit is generally lower, and there are some quaint rules which seem to be based more on chivalry than on the need for world domination which comes over many English drivers once they get behind the wheel. At a crossroads, or an all-way stop as it is known here, the driver who arrives at the junction first has priority. So we all stop, then politely wave each other on–none of the queue-jumping and bullish behavior you would see in England. Drivers here acknowledge one another with a polite wave more often than with the middle finger and pedestrians, so long as they aren’t jay-walking, are treated with courtesy. By way of contrast if your car is hit by a Brit, chances are they will leap apologetically from the driver’s seat and with a tip of their Bowler hat and a cheery wave of their tightly-rolled umbrella exclaim “I say, I’m most terribly sorry, old chap!” Here you’ll see Americans speeding off into the sunset in a cloud of dust shouting “Dumbass…”

Sunny side up

When it comes to the weather our tried and tested methods of prediction are quite different. In England, we have the Meteorological Office. In America, they have a large rodent. Punxsutawney Phil is a groundhog in Pennsylvania who, for reasons best known only to himself ‘predicts’ the weather every February 2nd. As a side note, when I typed in his name, predictive text asked if I’d like to replace it with ‘Unsatanic Phil’. I’d really like to; he sounds far more agreeable. My favorite American weather website updates minute by minute and is always reliably unreliable. I imagine it’s run by a chap who taps stuff into his computer while looking out of the window to see what’s happening. Subsequently I always know what the weather is doing right now, but the future remains disarmingly uncertain. It’s supposed to snow at the weekend, but I’ll pop out and ask a passing chipmunk, just to be on the safe side.

* National Institute of Literacy, August 2016.

This article was originally commissioned by Overland International. An edited version subsequently appeared in the Overland Journal fall edition, 2017.



From faux-pas to chutzpah

Catch the fall edition of Overland Journal for my light-hearted look at life on the other side of the pond – out now!

The Cabinet of Curiosities

Constructed of rosewood and dovetail, the Cabinet of Curiosities waits, gathering dust, for the watcher’s introspection. Rimed with silver, mother-of-pearl; a hinge that squeals when woken. Upon each sanded shelf my treasures lie. Mermaid’s purse and sea-glass from Lyme, an urchin, greedily plucked from an aquamarine Cretan seabed; free-diving, naked, off a deserted cove. And from a purple evening’s strandline at Cayucos, a fossilized sea-potato. But it is not solely objects that my cabinet holds. It cat-cradles my memories, as if balanced in a child’s playground game.

That rock-nestled urchin found whilst free-diving, naked, off a deserted cove; the sun bleaching our hair; warm ocean lapping at our skin like a thirsty lover; fish nibbling our toes.

The mermaid’s purse and sea-glass from mid-separation treks around the Dorset coast, the finder finding solace in the crash of waves.

A turquoise-banded bear fetish, the gift of a druid, for guidance. A wooden, jointed hare, a child’s toy from my father’s time, a century ago; reminder of a harsher life, when possessions were few.

A seashell from Orkney, found when I was fourteen, a relic treasured by a half-damaged girl in the years before it all came crashing down.

A California road-trip, passing places I thought I’d never see again; a lost child who I probably never will. His intricately-folded origami crane pierces my heart with happier times before love drove him away.

And my Cabinet of Curiosities, itself no more than a memory, mellowing those rememberings in a box in a room in a house five thousand miles away. For I have a new home now. And a new promise. I shall furnish a new Cabinet of Curiosities with New World memories, findings from desert and ocean, of exploration and learning, of forgiveness, of growing, and love.


Notes from a Broad: a ticket to Paradise. March 2016

I inadvertently do things which seem normal to me but which immediately mark me out as being different. Today I walk to the supermarket. In a culture where the car is King, this in itself is sufficient to cause people to stare. The only other pedestrian is Safeway’s resident beggar. Every supermarket in town has them. Usually a disabled veteran with no Federal benefits, or a young, haggard Hispanic woman, old before her time. More often than not a small child or a dehydrated dog features in the tableau. It occurs to me, rather ironically, that they are more a part of this society than I am; my visa is expired and I have no legal status in this country until the Department of Homeland Security decides to grant me residency. I am not allowed to leave the country until this process is complete; I am a stateless immigrant.

I am gradually getting used to the differences between American supermarkets and those in England. American stores are more reminiscent of the English grocery shops I remember from my early childhood, in the days when self-service was still a novelty. Food is more expensive, and the concept of the ‘value’ brand and fifty varieties of baked bean has not yet arrived. The jars of ‘Pigs’ Feet’ and piles of fresh cactus hold no fear for me. Potatoes are carefully arranged individually on display, as if they are rare fruits, which I suppose is what they are here. They are expensive, and of poor quality. The desert is not good arable country, and anything requiring a large amount of water to grow is a luxury item.

As I pay for my goods, Angie on the checkout offers me a third carrier bag which I refuse, explaining that I have to carry the shopping as I’m on foot. She looks at me as though she doesn’t quite grasp the concept. ‘You want a ticket to paradise?’ she asks. For a moment I wonder if Angie is going to turn out to be some kind of checkout evangelist, but it turns out she is just handing me my lottery ticket.

Being English and coming from a very rainy part of the country I am used to hurrying everywhere, coat buttoned to the chin and head down against the elements. The image of America I used to have in my mind was one where everyone is in a rush. That may be true in the cities, but here in the high desert, no-one hurries. It’s too hot, for a start. Today, in early March, shortly before lunchtime, it is just shy of 70 degrees, and that means a slow walk home. Arizona even has its own time zone. Imagine that in Somerset.

When I arrive home, hot and sweaty in the underwired department, I discover a note left wedged in the doorjamb, left by the Jehovah ’s Witnesses. Last time they came to the door I patiently explained that I was a Quaker and very happy with that, thank you very much. Again this prompted a look of bafflement. ‘Well, we get folks claimin’ to be all sorts of weird religions’ one of them said…the words pot and kettle sprang to mind, but I was too polite to say so. I unfold the leaflet, to find an invitation to a ‘free public event: You Will Be With Me In Paradise’. Superfluous capital letters aside, I spend a moment pondering on being with Jesus in Paradise, Paradise being apparently located at the Adult Center of Prescott on a Wednesday evening. If I attended, I was assured that I would hear ‘an explanation of how his death can benefit you and your family’. Trust the Americans to turn crucifixion into a development opportunity.

I feel brighter today, deciding to revert to good old British cooking making the most of the limited local resources. I improvise Cornish pasties with ready-made pastry cases and frozen veg. I’m not homesick exactly; there are not enough wild horses in England capable of dragging me back to the Somerset Levels, but I miss something of the familiarity of the land of my birth. So, I set about making familiar comforts: jelly with fresh Californian strawberries suspended in glorious, artificial ruby red nectar. I shall produce them from the fridge at teatime, as if by magic, and transport the two of us back to childhood Somerset. This will break all the food rules of the house, of course, this orgy of disodium phosphate and Red 40, and as I whisk it up I am almost drunk with the powdery candyfloss aroma of crystallised gelatin. I breath it in, and decide this is what Paradise smells like. It smells of red, and jelly and ice-cream, and candyfloss.


Notes From a Broad: The American Embassy, November 2015


So I’m sitting in the waiting room at Taunton railway station, about to embark on the biggest journey of my life. This time tomorrow, I shall know whether or not my visa application has been approved. I haven’t slept properly in two weeks, ever since the letter arrived inviting me to the interview at the US Embassy in London. In 24 hours my entire life may have changed course. I am nervous, and excited. Trepidatious, if that’s a word. I check with my software package and it suggests changing it to ‘Cretaceous’ or ‘streptococcus’. Tempting, but I decide to stick with ‘trepidatious’. I have told one or two friends about the interview, not many. I couldn’t bear the disappointment that would be magnified so many times if the answer is ‘no’.

It is a major difficulty to get to London for a 9am appointment. No train runs early enough, and I don’t fancy my chances of sleep on the sleeper train that takes almost three times as long to get to Paddington as the normal trains.

I have scraped together enough money for an overnight hotel stay, a single room close by Paddington Station, not too far to walk in the dark.

I am up at six o’clock the next morning after a fitful night. I head sleepily to the bathroom and turn on the tap. No water. I turn on the shower. No water. The room was cheap by London standards, but I’m pretty sure water was included. After giving it a couple of minutes I ring down to reception. No water. An external problem, they assure me; not the hotel’s responsibility. I negotiate the use of a basement room which does have water (how did Thames Water manage that, I wonder?) to be allowed the use of a bathroom very recently vacated by another patron, evidenced by the unmade bed and the dirty towels littering the bathroom floor. I select one small, seemingly – and hopefully – unused hand towel and tentatively dab my face dry. On the biggest day of my life I am unable to shower first. The poor duty manager has been working all night, and now has to deal with a constant stream of complaints. He advises me to come back at lunchtime if I wish to speak with the manager. I explain that actually I have a REALLY, REALLY important appointment which may take up the entire day, and resolve to follow up with Days Inn customer services by email instead. Therein lies another long story, suffice to say I was eventually given a refund ‘by check, in US dollars. We don’t have the facility to credit’ after almost two months and a barrage of emails.

So, at 7am, map in hand, I head off on foot through Hyde Park in the general direction of the American Embassy. According to Mr Google I should be at the Embassy in 23 minutes.

Which is why I eventually arrived there an hour and a quarter later.

See, I don’t have the best sense of direction. But, I was having a lovely walk through Hyde Park on a beautiful autumn morning. It was cold, but with that lazy winter sun which makes everything look pretty. Before I knew it, I was at the far end of the park, and, as I thought, still heading in the right direction. Until I looked at the map and realised that by now the park should be on my left, and not on my right. I passed quite a few Embassies, but not the American one. Eventually I had to admit to myself that I was, quite simply, a bit lost. My saviour arrived in the form of the tallest man I have ever seen, a doorman dressed in a red hunting jacket and black top hat, on duty outside some hotel or other. I explained where I was going. ‘Oh, the American Embassy? That’s over in Mayfair!’ He said, in a broad London accent. He pointed with his huge hands off into the far distance. ‘See that roundabout? That’s Hyde Park Corner. You wanna take a left there, then turn right at the donkey. Past the Dorchester then you’ll see the Embassy’. ‘Let me check I’ve got this right’ I said, slightly confused by the sudden introduction of livestock into the conversation. ‘I turn left, then head for the donkey’. So, I retraced my steps back to Hyde Park Corner, past the Dorchester Hotel. I never did find the donkey, but worked out that it must have been the War Horse memorial to animals lost in the Great War.

Sure enough, I finally arrived at the American Embassy, a vast, imposing building crowned with a huge gilded bald eagle. By this time it was raining, and the armed police on duty at the perimeter were looking bored. So too were the 150 other people who formed a long queue reaching back down the street. I approached a lady and asked if this was the queue for the visas. ‘This is the 8.30 queue’ she replied. ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘Then I’m guessing I need…the 9 o’clock queue???’ She pointed off to one side where another queue stretched away into the distance. I went to the back of the line, and resigned myself to a long wait. The whole of humanity was there: students, families, mothers with babies in their arms, seasoned travellers, tourists clutching travel itineraries, would-be migrants like myself, many of them clutching Indian passports and bundles of paperwork. I felt nervous, and excited. I craned my neck to look up at the huge eagle at the top of the building. It is an extremely effective symbol of the might of America. I dearly wanted to photograph it, but couldn’t be certain that my camera wouldn’t be confiscated by the cops – photographing the US Embassy would probably amount to espionage, or spying, resulting in several years’ incarceration in Guantanamo.

After an hour, an official came along the line encouraging us to get our papers ready for when we reached the front of the queue. She spotted mine and said brightly ‘Oh! You’re a K-1, you can jump the queue’. Not being sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I meekly followed her, glad of the opportunity to move so that I could get some feeling back into my frozen feet. I was then handed over to a security guard who put me in line for checking through security. This is an arrangement just like at an airport, and equally as thorough, and gets you through the perimeter fence to the outside of the Embassy. Then you have to walk all the way around to the main entrance, and to a very polite receptionist. He explained I should take a seat in the waiting hall and handed me a sheet of paper covered in identical barcodes. ‘And this is your number for the day’. I guessed I was going to be there for some time.

At that moment, the doors to the waiting hall swung open and a young woman made her way down the steps. She had obviously been crying, her mascara had run in little channels down her cheeks and she wore the washed out, lost look of someone who has just had their hopes and dreams dashed. I shivered, hoping this was not an omen of bad things coming my way.

The waiting hall resembles an airport departure lounge and seats 300 people. I know this, because I had plenty of time to count them all while I was waiting for my number to be called. At the front of the hall is a snack bar selling coffee and sandwiches. A minor panic erupted when it was announced over the tannoy that the coffee bar would be closing early today. I didn’t move from my seat, for fear of missing my number being called. The system works a bit like in an Argos store. A huge display board flashes up numbers roughly every 20 seconds or so, accompanied by a loud, discordant bleeping noise. But here’s the thing. The numbers are displayed in RANDOM order, so there is no chance of reading the book you might have taken with you to stave off the boredom, or of having a little walk to stretch your legs, because once your number’s gone, it’s gone. Next to the random-number-generator display board is a screen silently showing scenic views of the great American outdoors, to remind you what you’ll be missing out on when your application is refused. And just occasionally, an explanation of the procedure we are all here for today. My gaze wanders to the window. Outside it is still raining. People are still queueing. And this goes on all day, every day. Hordes of civilians, standing in line for a new life. I’m glad I’m inside now, away from the cold and the rain. There is no need for armed police officers in here. The hours of boredom, watching random numbers flash before our eyes, is enough to keep us subdued. The notion of a 9am appointment, indeed any definite time for an appointment, is long gone, but no-one seems to care. Some families talk quietly amongst themselves, most of us are silent, watching the flickering numbers. There is a strong, inexplicable smell of mothballs.

Two and three-quarter hours after I arrived, my number comes up and I am instructed to go to window number eight. The hall is lined with booths, like at the post office or the bank; perspex screens dividing the public from the officials, and microphones that make everything unintelligible.

I am greeted by a kind Italian gentleman who sports a magnificent Civil War moustache. I hand him my papers and he checks them over, saying that everything looks OK to him. ‘But’ he says advisedly, ‘It’s the Americans who will decide’. I am told to take a seat back in the waiting hall for my number to be called a second time.

After another hour, I am directed down a corridor to another booth where the atmosphere is decidedly cooler. By this point I have been waiting most of the day and I’m emotionally exhausted, hypertense, hungry and thirsty. This is the deciding moment which will affect the course of the rest of my life. I am feeling sick with anticipation. I daren’t think about being turned away. I smile confidently and greet ‘The American’ politely. He’s an innocuous looking man in his forties, and he will decide my future. ‘And who is your sponsor?’ he asks. Once I’ve translated this into a sentence my overloaded brain can interpret, I realise he means Nick. ‘Dr Nicholas Devereux’ I reply. He considers me for a moment, then says, ‘I’ll just go and get your file’.

Now, I spend every day in my job making up big bundles of evidence for Court. I’m quite good at it; it’s what I do. The bundle of evidence I sent to Homeland Security in the States has been forwarded to the US Embassy in London, and this is what I expect to see. A wad of papers approximately three inches thick, containing the many forms we completed, together with a copy of every email we have ever sent each other (only slightly censored for smut), a log of all our Skype conversations, photographs of holidays taken together, copies of both our passports. What ‘The American’ returns with, however, is a pile of papers a foot thick. A MASSIVE bundle of documents, and it’s all about me. As a Case Builder for the police I can appreciate the beauty of a well-compiled dossier, and I really, really want to know what’s in the bundle. But when you’ve travelled halfway across the country, slept in a strange bed, woken up to no running water and possible smell a little questionable, walked the length of Hyde Park (twice) and turned right at a donkey, queued up for most of the day with half of London and might possibly have omitted some vital piece of information from your application, you really, really don’t ask. This is a boat that must not be rocked. So I content myself with raising one eyebrow and prepare to be questioned.

I had brought with me, as instructed, not only essential documents like my birth certificate, medical records and police certificate, but also duplicate copies of all the additional evidence in support of my application. Two reams of paper in a briefcase. It weighs a ton. ‘The American’ didn’t ask for any of them, and again, I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or not. He asks me how Dr Nick and I met, and I brighten up at the prospect of telling him The Big Old Love Story. ‘Can I tell you the big old love story?’ I ask. ‘Just the short version ma’am’ is his reply. So I keep it short. He asks how often we have visited each other, and about Dr Nick’s work. Where I intend to live, and whether we have been married before. ‘Not to each other’ I consider saying, but remember my best friend’s advice when dealing with bureaucrats: never, ever, try to be funny.

‘Well,’ says The American, ‘Your application is approved’ and picking up a big stamp, begins stamping the word ‘APPROVED’ on my application. Just like that, it’s all over. Before I know it, I have clamped my hand to my mouth and hot, salty tears of relief roll down my face. ‘Oh! Thank you! Thank you!’ Is all I can manage to say. ‘I can’t even shake your hand because you’re behind this big perspex window!’ The American nods inscrutably, murmuring ‘Take care on your way out ma’am’ and with that, I am dismissed. I scramble my papers together, pages slipping to the floor as I am blinded with tears, and somehow make my way back to the waiting hall, where strangers, awaiting their turn, ask me if I’m OK. ‘I’m very, very happy’ I explain, and pull in vain at the door, trying to get it open. A young woman points silently to the large sign marked ‘PUSH’ and everyone laughs. I’m back at the reception desk, and pause to wipe my eyes and pull myself together. I’m getting concerned looks from the reception staff, so I tell them The Big Old Love Story, seeing as how I was denied the opportunity with The American. ‘Oh, that’s really luvvly’ says the lady at the desk ‘I’m gonna tell my mum that story when I get home. It’ll make her day’. I make my way out into the late afternoon sunshine, and take the first breath of the rest of my life.

Notes From a Broad, November 2014: Dick’s Fix-It

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.


Notes From a Broad, November 2016: Trump’s Brave New World, Day 3.

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!’.