Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Doomed to perpetual homesickness

I'm guest posting today over at A Mid Atlantic English.

I love her blog because she is my opposite twin, an American living in the UK. And she is a really good writer too. Hope you enjoy. (post added here too)

I remember distinctly when I realized that I had two homes. It was sometime in 1998, I had been living in San Francisco for a couple of years, and I was home in the UK visiting my family. A complicated series of events involving a Brazilian salsa bar, the American obsession with demanding photo ID to get into alcohol vending establishments, and the fact that an old style British passport doesn't fit well into the back pocket of a pair of hip hugging jeans had left me burdened with a new passport that didn't have the necessary Visa stamp to support my residence status..

I still kick myself for losing that lovely old style black British passport, ornamented with visas from former eastern block countries and with the twenty or so arabic stamps that are acquired when buying booze in Egypt.

In order to get myself back into the US I had a pile of paperwork from my university and an appointment at the US embassy.  I arrived at this appointment, waited in a long line in the rain in Grosvner square, handed my passport over and waited for the stamp that would allow me to go back to my new home. My passport was handed back to me a few hours later with “Visa denied” stamped across it. Apparently my university had erroneously retained the wrong one of the 6 or so carbon copies of my “form IA66”, and this rendered me ineligible for the Visa.

Thus began a spiral into the netherworld of immigration bureaucracy.

I was able to get the right papers express mailed to me, but the backlog for appointments at the Embassy was over six weeks, and the only way to get one was by phoning a number that cost about two pounds per minute. I sat on the pay phones in Selfridges on Oxford Street, on hold, until the phones were filled with my pound coins, and I was no closer to having an appointment.

I learned that crying on the steps of the Embassy to the nice looking young soldier with the big gun doesn't grant you an audience with anyone.

I marched the length of Oxford street, formerly one of my favourite streets in the whole world, from Marble Arch down to the Virgin Atlantic offices (at that time above the Virgin Megastore at Oxford Circus) several times, trying to change my flights and then to get another hearing at the Embassy.

 I remember distinctly when fully realized that San Francisco was my home. It was when I stopped for a consolation shopping spree in Top Shop, and I heard that Cardigans song, the one with the jaunty chorus “the Sunday sun shines down on San Francisco Bay”.  The song conjured me a picture of the bay, the bridges, the pale stucco houses jumbled on this hills behind and my cosy little room in my Victorian apartment, and I wanted to be back there so very very badly.  It hit me right there on quintessentially  English Oxford Street that England wasn't my only home.

I got the visa, after a Kafka-esque experience with a visa courier agency on Regent Street. The agent took my rejection letter, called a number only he had access to, explained my fate, and just as he was about to put the phone down in vain mentioned a 6 digit code printed in six point font on the bottom right margin of the letter. He read it to them and the voice at the embassy said. “Oh, if you have that code you can come back in tomorrow with the new paperwork”. I'm mystified to this day as to what exactly happened to my paperwork, but I returned home to San Francisco without further problems.

It was here that I had my first job, that I learned to drive, that I made some of the dearest friends I will ever know, that I met and married my husband and gave birth to our children. I was here during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, here when Bush Jr didn't actually get elected in 2000, here on 9/11. I was here when we elected Barak Obama. (though I didn't actually vote, I did buy pizza for our get out the vote phone bank). For all its flaws, I love America.

But when I am back in England, or even when I watch an old episode of Inspector Morse, I feel a deep nostalgia and familiarity. I miss the self deprecating humor of Britain, the green mossiness of its countryside, the history and quirkiness of most of its buildings, taken completely for granted until I left, and the fantastic selection of chocolate bars and beer. I miss my family, and I envy my sister and brother their lovely English homes and the close, easy relationship they enjoy with my parents. I wish I could just pop the kids in the car and drive over to Grandma and Grandads for the day.

We toy with the idea of returning. I'd like the kids to do their GCSEs and A levels. The American high school experience doesn't seem rigorous enough, and I'm scared of its unfamiliarity and lack of uniforms. Coming 'home' to the UK would be like starting again in a new country in many ways though. I've been gone so long. John Major was prime minister when I left. I was away when Princess Diana died. When Tony Blair was elected. Through the foot and mouth epidemic. When the buses were bombed. I will be over here when London hosts the Olympics (I'll be cheering for Brits when I get the chance though!). I pick up “OK” magazine at the airport and I have no idea who any of the celebrities are.

I've never had a real job in England, or paid taxes. I've never driven there, or bought a house. Going back will be a culture shock. I still have days when I feel alien here (I am in fact a resident alien, a term which always brings to mind a civilized little green person with antennae), and ache to return to the UK, then there days where I swear I will cling to this little peninsula, somewhere over the rainbow at the end of the western world, with every ounce of strength I have.

Moving to another country is a leap of faith. Fourteen years ago I showed up in a city I had never before visited, with two suitcases and almost from that first glimpse of seas, spans and spires from the banking window of flight VS019, I found a home I didn't know I was missing. Wherever the rest of my life takes me, I will leave a big part of my heart in San Francisco.