Category Archives: American life

Happy July 4th

American flag

The Chatterbox’s impression of the Stars and Stripes

Happy 4th of July! Here are some little facts to ponder on the day America declared its independence from the British.

According to the Pew Research Center, over half of Americans are proud of their nationality (56%) but only 44% still think the country’s best years are to come, with the younger generations being the most optimistic.

The percentage of Americans who think the U.S. is the #1 country in the world has dropped by 10% since 2011. Only 28% now believe it holds top status, perhaps a reflection of China’s rising influence.

But 58% of Americans still believe the USA is one of the greatest countries in the world.

In my hometown of London, obviously no one makes much of Independence Day apart from a passing curiosity.

People might occasionally ask what’s traditional, which leaves me kind of stumped. I usually end up muttering something about barbecues, beer and fireworks. Not exactly the most inspiring answer, but it’s what I remember doing.

I’m out of touch with what it means to be American these days. I feel like it’s an integral part of my identity and yet I now find it harder and harder to pinpoint precisely what makes me American apart from my accent.

The weirdest thing is watching your kids grow up to have a national identity totally distinct from yours. I know it’s what my Mexican parents went through, but I never appreciated how strange it is to let go of traditions you grew up with.

If I mention July 4th to my kids, they wouldn’t have a clue what it means. Theirs is a world inhabited by kings and queens, not presidents and pioneers.

But after nearly half my life spent somewhere other than where I was born, I’ve started to question whether I’m now nothing more than a mix of clashing cultures.

Here’s why I might not be as American as apple pie:

  • I hate driving. At some point in the last 18 years, I Iost my love for cars. Driving a car, in fact, fills me with fear not a feeling of freedom.
  • I like walking places. Despite my southern California upbringing, one in which I never even walked to the local shop, I now find myself relying on my two legs to get me around.
  • I’m not a great fan of the great outdoors. I don’t know if it’s the inhospitable weather in the UK, but you won’t catch me climbing mountains, camping or making smores by a fire.
  • I don’t like baseball. To be fair, I hate cricket too and don’t have a clue how it’s played.
  • I don’t know the words to the Star Spangled Banner. Yes, it pains me to admit this, but I get lost somewhere after ‘twilight’s last gleaming’ and have to fake it. Mind you, I wouldn’t be the first to mime along to it. Beyoncé, anyone?
  • My knowledge of American history is hazy to say the least. Yes, I know the dates of the Civil War but don’t ask me to explain anything about the Boston Tea Party or American politics. Some of the scenes in House of Cards, for instance, are as incomprehensible to me as a foreign language.
  • I have a peculiar English habit of apologizing for stuff that isn’t my fault.

Despite my persistent doubts about my nationality, I still consider myself more or less an American. What is America, anyway, but a confusing mix of different identities thrown together?

A little related news from the other side of the pond: one of the 12 surviving copies of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence will be on display at the British Library from next year as part of an exhibition about the Magna Carta.

Since I have never in my life seen these important documents in America’s history, I will be visiting. I suspect this still won’t help me decipher the plot of House of Cards.

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Blog on holiday

Shamu show

The Shamu show was not the highlight of my summer

The blog has been on vacation – and you probably haven’t noticed because the Earth keeps turning on its axis and it’s getting distinctly chilly in London. Autumnal. There was one day of raging-hot temperatures – a show of last-summer bravado – but I fear it might be truly OVER.

With that in mind, I’ll recap on summer’s last few weeks before it becomes nothing but a dusty memory in my brain:

  • We all got lice. I had one of those moments as a parent, an epiphany you might say. I discovered that parenthood will continue to surprise you, no matter how long you’ve been at it. I also learned that lice are incredibly tenacious and remarkably evolved to survive. Damn them. So I thought I had zapped them a few weeks ago, only to discover that they came back with a vengeance and attacked me. There is something distinctly surreal about having your nearly 70-year-old mother combing through your hair looking for the parasites and remarking, ‘You do have a lot of grey hair.’ Thanks, Mom.
  • I went to Sea World in San Diego. Americans just know how to do theme parks. Thanks to the sponsorship of Anheuser-Busch, I also got to enjoy a refreshing Bud Light lime. The only downside of the day, really, was the Shamu show. I couldn’t help but notice that the mammals hardly seemed happy, with their dorsal fins flopping about and a lack of space. And I also noticed that the trainers no longer get in the water with the orcas. I guess it’s just one accident or death too many. So there is no more diving off Shamu’s nose. In fact, all the orcas do nowadays is splash water at people, which seems a tad undignified if you ask me.
  • I went to the San Diego Zoo. Can’t recommend it highly enough. If you suffer a pang of guilt at the thought of sea otters and walruses performing tricks at Sea World, the SD Zoo is a reminder that not all cages are either visible or entirely bad.
    Koala

    But I did like the zoo

  • I got behind the wheel of a car for the first time in over a year and learned that I hate driving just about as much as I remembered I did. If I move back to southern California, I really do have to get over this perpetual feeling that I will end up in a car crash.
  • I discovered that the top posting on my blog is none other than the one about my verruca (plantar’s wart) disappearing after 13 long, painful years. I don’t know why this has captured everyone’s imagination, but I suspect there are quite a few people with warts out there.
  • I now officially have two children in school. I’ve gone from pushing them around in a stroller to holding their hands as they cross the street to ‘Big School’. I didn’t cry, but I’m rather astounded the baby phase is over. At the time, however, it felt like it might go on forever, particularly when I was awake with a crying infant at 3am. Now I sneak into the kids’ room when they are fast asleep and look for the babies they once were in their sleeping faces.
  • I turned 40. That’s right, I’m middle aged. I now fully understand why it’s middle age, because precisely half the population appears to be younger than me. In my head I never look much older than 30, so I am always surprised when I meet someone and think how terribly old they look, only to discover that they are actually younger than me! So then I have to ask myself, do I look that old? I don’t truly know, but I have started spending almost as much time plucking grey hairs as I do on makeup. That must tell you something.
  • A friend in San Diego gave me a letter from my past. It was dated January 1997 and mentioned my arrival in London all those years ago. In the digital age we have forgotten the permanence and power of letters. Here it was, my thoughts on the city that has become my home, written on three densely packed pages. I wasn’t very impressed, but I explained how this experience in a foreign country was bound to make me a better person and how travelling opened my eyes to another world. The English Husband got mentioned as ‘one of the most decent people I have ever met’ but sadly with Girlfriend. I want to write to the previous me and tell her, you will never believe your future.
  • I saw my family for nearly six weeks and discovered that the true downside of travel is that you always have to say goodbye, whether to your vacation, your days of freedom, the people you love or your experiences. Goodbye is the hardest word.

That is the summer in a nutshell. The light is changing here in London. The harsh summer glare has been replaced with something softer and gentler. It went, as always, too fast.

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Hip hop concert in Los Angeles

Run the Jewels album cover

The cover of album Run the Jewels.
Don’t ask me what it means.

There are certain things in life that you gradually start discarding as you get older. One of these is going to concerts where you have to stand for the entire show, jumping around to music while you clutch a plastic cup of beer. I prefer going to dinner and comfortably sitting through the whole thing.

So when my brother mentions a hip hop concert in Los Angeles with underground rappers in a new venue in Echo Park, I want to laugh.

‘I need to know if I should buy you a ticket,’ he says.

I don’t want a ticket, but I need a ride to Los Angeles and this is my best opportunity.

‘I don’t know,’ I answer hesitantly. ‘Will it be dangerous?’

When I went to college in Los Angeles in the 90s, Echo Park was in gangster territory, the war equivalent of no-man’s land. You only went there if you wanted drugs or if you had a death wish. When my friend’s car got stolen some years ago, it ended up in Echo Park. I didn’t want to be some sad statistic on the local news: 40-year-old mother-of-two attends hip hop concert and ends up shot in gang fight.

I have visions of being sprawled on the floor, dressed in my Macy’s jeans and Crocs shoes.

‘It’s not going to be dangerous,’ he laughs. ‘Echo Park is really yuppie now. Most of the people there will be young hipsters.’

It’s hard to know who I should fear more – the gangsters with baggy jeans or the cool hipsters who casually throw together mismatched clothes like some people are able to throw together a gourmet meal with three ingredients. At my age it’s hard to know.

‘Fine, buy me a ticket,’ I say with little conviction. Turning 40 has made me realize that I don’t have much time before I genuinely look ridiculous in certain settings. Seize the moment.

A few days later we are in the car, heading towards Los Angeles and our big concert night. I’m feeling anxious. Part of my anxiety derives from the fact that my wardrobe choices are limited in San Diego. I packed in a hurry and ended up with only one sweater, a creamy cotton thing with a shaggy fringe on the pockets. It looks like a ‘mother’ sweater, a wardrobe staple I’d wear to the park but would be embarrassed to wear anywhere else.

‘Maybe someone will think you are making an ironic statement,’ my brother says when he sees the sweater, which I’ve paired with my plastic Crocs shoes in a leopard print.

I’m doubtful.

We drive up to the Echoplex in a grungy LA cab and I realize I had nothing to worry about. The outside patio is strung with cute lights; a number of white men, mostly in their late twenties and early thirties, are hanging out in American Apparel hoodies. They only know gangsters from movies which they possibly produced.

The opening act is Despot, a white diminutive rapper from Queens – but we find out that he’s not on until 10.30pm. We exchange dismayed looks. It’s not even 9pm and I’m already yawning. We debate leaving, but we can’t come back in.

So there’s nothing to be done but to start drinking and it costs $35 for each round of three drinks. Two long hours later, Despot makes it to the stage in a shirt that could rival my sweater. It looks like a bad holiday souvenir that inexplicably has Italian Riviera written on the back. I think he is being ironic.

To my surprise, I like Despot. He’s funny, clever and engaging. He actually talks to the audience and says much more than the standard ‘Hello Los Angeles’. His raps focus on the stereotypical aspects of gang life – drugs, buying fast cars and watches, drugs – but you get the feeling he doesn’t really believe in it.

Finally, at 12.45am, headline act Run the Jewels comes on. The act is a collaboration between EL-P and Killer Mike. Both are talented hip-hop veterans whose eponymous record received near-universal acclaim from music critics. I’m starting to flag after my seventh vodka soda, but my brother is happy (a rarity) and his girlfriend is laughing. I don’t know why the rappers yank off their chunky gold chains and start rapping about running the jewels, but I blend in with the crowd by screaming some of the words back to them. I’m kind of just making them up.

Tonight was a lesson in being middle-aged. Go out of your comfort zone once in a while. It’s too easy to get stuck in a rut. Shame my rap revelation had to cost us about $300 in drinks, cabs and tickets.

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Filed under American life, Going out

My American shopping experience

Target logo

A store for everything, even a Starbucks coffee

We’ve been one week in the United States and I’ve had a few American experiences, none more than going shopping. This is not the London variety of shopping, where you pick up a cute little basket for a few things you might need for dinner that night. Or browse through a little boutique for an overpriced dress. This is the American variety of shopping, where you push a massive shopping cart through a store where everything seems to dwarf you.

I’m in Target, an American institution, when I have a disorienting experience. Everything is large and I’m pushing a cart twice my size through aisles packed with products made for what appear to be families of six big people. Worryingly, the cart is actually half full with stuff.

I am in American-mom mode, picking up sun block and a beach towel, some gifts for the Raging Bull’s fourth birthday, a pinata shaped like a butterfly, a t-shirt, a DVD, even a couple of random zucchinis and frozen waffles from the food section.

There’s not much you can’t buy at Target. It’s the kind of store I always wish for in London, but which has no equivalent. Where I live in in the UK, everything is small. To get what I find at Target would take me an entire day of frenzied shopping, zigzagging through a myriad of places that sell different things; you’d never find it under one roof like you do here in California.

So the fact is I don’t bother trying to find it. I make do without closet organizers, plastic boxes and wicker baskets. I don’t buy milk in the same place where I can buy clothes or DVDs. Is this is a bad thing? No. Is it less convenient? Yes.

The irony of my Target shopping experience is that it makes me feel less American than I ever do in the UK. Here in the United States I feel totally out of place pushing my gigantic shopping cart. I feel weird (and anxious) getting behind the wheel of a car and driving. All the things that are quintessentially American make me feel like anything but. I am an imposter here – I have the right accent, but not quite the right attitude or frame of reference anymore.

I always have this disorienting experience when I go ‘home’. I find that I’m not quite as American as I feel in London, where people hear my accent and immediately make assumptions about me. The things that make me American in the UK don’t make me American here. In fact, they make me a kind of strange hybrid.

The kids are enjoying their American summer, though. It doesn’t escape my notice that they have two homes in two different countries. They have two passports and two distinct nationalities, but one day they will have to choose. This is the choice I have avoided making for a long time – where do I want to end up, London or sunny San Diego?

The Raging Bull turned to me the other day, her milky skin already turning a golden brown. ‘I like America. It’s sunny and I like the sun. I don’t want to go back to London. I want to stay in America forever.’ Her heart-shaped mouth is a small pout as she overemphasizes ‘forever’.

I sometimes wish for the same thing. As I left Target today – my second visit in a handful of days – I buy my iced caramel macchiato from the in-store Starbucks and then head to my mom’s air-conditioned car in the gigantic parking lot. I’m getting comfortable, but I still need help parking the car.

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Goodbye, California

I’ve said many goodbyes over the last couple of weeks. The hardest is coming. I’ve been here before, though. Exactly a year ago I had to say goodbye to all my friends in London. I wish I could say that you get numb to the experience. You don’t.

For me, the sadness comes in waves. I’ll be doing something totally ordinary and then it will wash over me: a pain in my chest, and a feeling like I am choking on something. There’s a reason it’s called a heartache – it honestly does hurt.

So, the suitcases are mostly packed – they look like they are leering at me, with their zippered mouths wide open. They are full to the point of exploding. There’s nothing like a bit of packing to make all your possessions look so inadequate and pathetic. You have all this stuff and what does it amount to? I am loaded down with a bunch of heavy junk.

My idea was to come to the United States and start a new life. I’ve not been that successful. Namely, I haven’t found a job. For that reason I will be going back to London, where I have a husband with the means to support our small family.

What I will miss:

I will miss the sky, the expansive blue dome of sky that you get in California. It’s endless. It looks like someone has thrown a baby boy’s blanket across the roof of the Earth.

I will miss the beach, the canyons and the gentle winters.

I will miss my friends. Thank you for listening to me, for supporting me and for trying to help me. I will not forget all your generosity. You have done what all good friends do – tell me the truth about myself.

I will miss my family. It’s not easy to live with your mother when you are a mother yourself, but we’ve made it work somehow. I am so glad my children know you well enough to ask for you when they wake up in the middle of the night.

I will miss my brother. We can laugh at each other. The wine helps.

What I have learned:

You can get used to almost anything, even sharing a bed with your child when you should be sharing a bed with your husband.

You are stronger than you think you are.

You can’t have everything all at once.

A year goes too quickly.

Driving requires coordination and confidence.

Insurance is expensive.

Every relationship, even the one with your parents, requires patience and compromise.

Thank you to everyone who has read my random scribblings so far. I am afraid that my blog has kind of lost its reason for being. I will keep you updated with my experiences from London.

I’m off to catch a plane and I should be in bed. The end.

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Filed under American life, transitions, Uncategorized

And what do you do?

About three weeks ago I went to the dermatologist. The waiting room was an oasis of calm cleanliness. It’s not what I’m used to. I suspect living in London has taught me to accept a general state of shabbiness, especially in public places. I am at the dermatologist to get a growth on my nose removed. It’s something I’ve wanted to get rid of before, but in London I needed a referral from my doctor to get this little thing seen to. It might seem straightforward enough, but it was an exercise in exasperating bureaucracy – and I never got around to it.

I leave the doctor’s office feeling a bit like a tropical flower. I also now have a huge bandage on my nose.

Here, in the United States, getting the growth removed took less than an hour and only $200. I have no insurance, so I’m immensely glad not to be slapped with a huge bill. But I still feel uncomfortable every time I show up to a place where the receptionist asks patiently, ‘Do you have insurance?’ Saying no makes me feel irresponsible and, rather oddly, like a leech sucking the system dry. I don’t know why I should feel this way because I am paying for my treatment on this occasion.

My discomfort doesn’t end in the waiting room. I’m ushered into an inner office where I wait for the doctor to see me. He takes one look at my growth and says he’ll take it right off with a scalpel, but he’ll also do a biopsy to make sure it’s not cancer. As he prepares for this procedure, he says: ‘Wow, you have an interesting face. It’s unusual.’ His assistant adds: ‘Yes. I think it’s what you would call exotic.’

Exotic? I’m feeling a bit like a tropical flower that’s wandered in from the jungle. Is this how the Mona Lisa feels while tourists snap photographs from every conceivable angle? To make matters worse, this conversation is taking place while they both poke my nose.

‘You’re right, it is exotic,’ says the doctor, as he takes out a needle and injects it into my ‘wannabe mole’. I fake a laugh, trying not to betray my discomfort.

I have a follow-up appointment yesterday, and I’m inwardly cringing when my doctor and the same assistant walk into the sterile room I’ve been put in. ‘I remember you,’ the assistant says enthusiastically. I’m thinking, ‘Great, just what I wanted.’ They once again bring up my exotic looks, but then the conversation veers in another direction.

‘So, what do you do?’ says the doctor, trying to make conversation and put me at my ease. (He’s failing spectacularly.)

I really hate this question. It’s innocuous enough when you have a job and a purpose to your days, but when you spend most of your time trying to keep your children from destroying your mother’s house and each other, I feel like it’s loaded with potential misunderstanding.

‘I don’t have a job right now.’

‘So, what were you educated in?’ he persists, looking down at the book I have resting in my lap. It’s trashy, by the way, so I cover it with my hands.

‘Right now it seems I was educated to look after two kids,’ I reply with a straight face. This gets me a few laughs.

The doctor then launches into a lecture about how studying is important for meeting someone who is your equal. I suspect his children have been taught that anything less than a career in medicine, law or engineering is really not worth pursuing. I remember my dad, who is an engineer, once saying something similar when I told him that I was going to get a degree in communications. His look can only be described as crestfallen.

‘I don’t think you have to be educated to be intelligent or meet your equal,’ I say. He appraises me carefully, but I’m not sure what he is thinking.

‘Goodbye, Mom,’ he says, as he shakes my hand. I want to scream, I’m not your mother, but it’s useless to protest about this. I’ve encountered it many times before.

I leave the doctor’s office and replay the strange conversation in my head. Why should it matter to me what he thinks? Why should it matter to me that I don’t know what to answer when people ask me what I do, especially in professional spheres? It shouldn’t matter at all, but it leaves me feeling like I’ve tasted something bitter.

Next time someone asks me this I might tell them I am a hand model. I’ve always had good nails.

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Memories

‘Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.’

-Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami

Not a book for people who like neat endings

I read this line in Murakami’s dreamlike book, published in 2002, and it struck me immediately. The character speaking this sentence is a 50-year-old woman trapped between two worlds, the world of the living and the dead. My situation is not nearly as dramatic, but I do feel like I am living between two worlds. It’s partly what this blog was supposed to be about, although it has meandered a little.

For those who have not read this from the beginning, a quick recap: I am American, but I have lived most of my adult life in the UK. After so much time abroad, I missed what I thought of as home. I’d never known the United States as a responsible, grown woman, and I wanted to find out if it’s somewhere I could see myself. I lived with this feeling for many years, and I decided to do something about it. I moved back to California, where I was born, about a year ago. The decision was taken quickly, and I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.

Yet I have not totally let go of the UK. In fact, I am planning to return there next month – and the move is permanent. It’s not necessarily the outcome I would have wanted, but times are tough in the United States. Unemployment remains high, and despite one job offer on the other side of the country, I’ve not found anything else that would support a small family on the west coast. It would be a case of risking it all and continuing to live with my mother in San Diego until I could be financially independent. It could take a while.

Since my husband remained in London for work, I needed to make a decision one way or another. To stay or to go back to something more financially secure? I decided to go and cut my losses for now. We can’t survive another year apart.

So while I wait for the inevitable, I feel like I am already living amongst memories. It’s a strange feeling. When you know that you will be leaving friends and family for a permanent move many thousands of miles away, ordinary moments take on a new dimension. It’s a bit like looking at things through the viewfinder of a camera. You focus in on the small details, trying to make them sharper; you take everything in and hope to remember it like a series of snapshots.

Unfortunately, memory is such a slippery thing. Like time, it doesn’t stay static or still. It squirms and wriggles, even though all you want to do is hold it tight. Already, my life in London feels incredibly distant, like I am watching scenes played out on a stage with opera glasses. I am totally disconnected from those experiences now. I have memories, of course, but I can see that with time they would start to feel like they belong to someone else.

As a parent I am already familiar with the feeling of seeing things for perhaps the last time. It happens nearly every day in the life of small children. They don’t notice it, of course, but you do. I watch my two-year-old turning into a child – I see her little belly grow flatter, her chubby face start to sharpen; the baby curls are loosening as her hair grows; her legs drape well below my waist when I pick her up. As she perfects her vocabulary, she is leaving her baby babble behind. I watch her sometimes when she is asleep, and I know that she will one day look like a girl and not a baby with the tiny heart-shaped face. I’ve seen this change in another child once already. It’s a natural process, but it’s still a little painful.

I think about trying to slow time down, more than once. I know from experience that this last month will instead feel like it’s accelerating. The days will run away from me, faster than a sprinter on a track field.

This is how Murakami puts it: ‘Time weighs down on you like an old, ambiguous dream. You keep on moving, trying to slip through it. But even if you go to the ends of the earth, you won’t be able to escape it.’

By the way, I highly recommend this book if you can deal with an ending that will leave you with more questions than answers.

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Filed under American life, Books, motherhood, transitions