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