The entire staff of the local posh food store greets me by name (first and last) although I have been there merely half a dozen times.
I suspect they are being "friendly." I find the experience "alarming."
This is partly cultural: customer service in England is sparse, to say the least, and in Cambridge you could describe shop clerks as antagonistic. The folks at Bacchanalia and the farm store were the only amiable people I encountered on a daily basis, but they certainly never knew my name. Or at least, they didn't use it.
I assumed that London would be worse; it is, after all, an enormous cosmopolitan city, easy to get lost in, easy to be ignored.
Imagine my surprise to find that Shoreditch functions as a sociable little village. The people who sell me coffee, flowers, groceries, pizza, and gluten free brownies are all affable, accommodating, interested.
Like certain multinational banks, I have "complex tax issues."
Unlike certain multinational banks, I "pay taxes."
I'm an American citizen by birth and British by residency, and as such am compelled to pay national taxes in each country. Since I own properties and work in both places, I also pay local tax in whichever borough, county, or constituency I fetch up in.
I am not exaggerating: all grown members of my family keep a daily log of their whereabouts and file taxes with relevant authorities, year after monotonous year. In 2010 alone that included three countries and half a dozen American states. Not to mention miscellaneous sales tax I would never apply for relief from, as I am already hassled with excessive amounts of paperwork.
In fact, the more we earn, the less we have, because of the tax rate, and because flitting about is expensive. Painful? Oh, yes. Also correct, lawful, and for the common good. I could live in a place with a lower tax rate. I could stick with one place and never budge. I chose this life, and I accept the consequences.
Tickets for the 2012 Olympics?
Six years of life in Europe has served one main purpose: to convince me that national stereotypes and historical reputations are deserved.
Certainly not all - and generally not the worst of those available - and of course individual people have an array of personal idiosyncrasies. But very general points like England has shoddy housing are more accurate than I could have believed possible.
Cold, draughty, mouldy houses? Check! Infestations of vermin? Inefficient builders? Carpets in places where carpets do not belong, like kitchens and bathrooms? Oh yes. And more! Plus the drama plays out in miniature: the smallest personal dwelling spaces of any country in Europe.
Now that I am officially British I feel entitled to criticise. Though, like a Brit, my primary complaint is that properties are so expensive. I wouldn't mind living in a slum, if the rates reflected the quality of the accommodation.
I remember a time when I thought my New York friends (with children) paying premium prices for limited square footage were insane. England forced me to think of those apartments with envy. Why? Compared to London they are bigger, cheaper, better insulated, and without exception, feature lashings of hot water on demand.
When I decided to move to London the big question was where to live: keep (or upgrade) my boat? Share a flat? Rent? Buy? I had ignored the property market when it was misbehaving, because I don't think real estate is an appropriate speculative investment. But in my humble opinion it makes sense to buy when the amount you spend on rent matches or exceeds the amount you might pay a landlord. So, despite the idiocy of the mortgage products (did you know that people here generally take variable rate deals, renewable every five years? That a very high percentage opt for interest-only payments? True facts) it seemed like buying was the most practical choice.
But what to buy? Whereas once I would have chosen for aesthetic reasons or to obtain a "bargain" this time my concerns were strictly pragmatic. I wanted windows that opened and closed. New plumbing. Mixing taps!
These elements are not guaranteed according to price. Paying more means very little, and in fact could be worse - because the gorgeous old houses are (rightly) protected by preservation rules. Translation: you might never be able to install a modern kitchen. Call me cowardly and fastidious, but I didn't want to spend a fortune wrangling with planning permissions in order to live in a construction site. Here in the UK I know people who have spent millions, and years, but still live in crap.
London is technically one of the most expensive cities in the world, but like any other place has its own twisted internal logic. I need to live within short cycling distance of either Kings Cross or Liverpool Street train stations, I had to consider stamp duty threshold (translation: tax rate), and I wanted an energy efficient home.
Of course everyone else like me wants, if not the same things, at least the same location at the same price. Factor in little details like the notion that there are only seller agents, never buyer agents, the selection of properties was best described as nonexistent. Dozens upon dozens of inquiries solicited only three call-backs. Interesting, eh?
So I was thrilled beyond belief when I finally found an affordable flat best described as simple and new.
Then I waited for seven tedious months for the zoning to be amended. Reflecting each morning that it would have been vastly more painful if I had been trying to acquire a Georgian terrace, or convert an old warehouse.
I moved in the last week of September, and all these months later remain entranced by the mod cons. Doors that shut with a solid thunk - and stay shut! Wood floors that proceed on a flat plane, without splinters or sloping or buckling! Windows, glorious windows: huge, functional, letting in light and air! Cupboards, a fridge that stays cold, a cooker that actually cooks! And of course, best of all, hot water, whenever I wish, in both kitchen and bath.
Though the most interesting thing has been the reaction of friends. Those reared in Germany and Sweden just nod: the amenities and presentation are in their minds a minimum standard.
Americans are dismissive, even rude, mainly because they are shocked at the size - easily half what I would have considered necessary in Seattle or Portland.
My British friends are the only people who can appreciate what I have accomplished, and their reaction has been the most puzzling. My agent informed me that the flat is fancy: quite possibly the last word I would have chosen. But she, and the others, are not reacting to the looks of the place. It is honestly just a plain square space filled with my accumulated junk.
No, they - like me - appreciate the excellence of the central heating.
First citizenship, now this. What next? Will I finally succumb and acquire a British accent?
By the end of the two month stateside road trip I was so finished with my homeland I was accidentally nostalgic for Cambridge.
That venerated university town does at least feature residents crazed with intellectual fervour. Unlike, say, California, where everyone is chill.
But despite lively debates with geniuses of every flavour, Cambridge remains the worst place I have ever lived. Especially if you are not affiliated with a college, the town lacks amenities I think necessary for daily life.
The question is, could Cambridge get worse?
There was a time when I would have refused cosmetic surgery as a political gesture, but lately that philosophical stance just seems like a different kind of vanity.
I would certainly never undertake any sort of elective surgery, for any reason. I don't understand how anyone would take the risk, especially not in service to transient notions of beauty. Even if I cared about appearances, I've had too many post-operative complications following necessary and urgent procedures.
But right now I need eight biopsies. Five are inconsequential: tracts of my shoulder and leg can be hacked off by any old passerby, for all that I care. Positive, negative, cancer, not cancer, whatever. My only real concern is that allergies to adhesive will make it difficult to bandage the bloody stitches.
But three of the suspicious lesions are on my face. One occupies a pretty big chunk of my lower lip.
Marisa didn't like it when I asked will you still love me if they amputate my lips? Though she did laugh, at least.
When the skin cancer expert looked at my hide under powerful lights and magnifying lenses she paused, then commented These areas do not. . . heal well.
Decades of treatment dull the drama, but I do so detest this whole process. It reminds me of being a teenager, stumbling around in a medicated daze with fresh, itchy, infected wounds.
But since ignoring the problem does not make it go away (I have tested the hypothesis quite extensively) I have been forced to hire that most extraordinary of all medical practioners, a plastic surgeon.
Does it help to know the specialty developed to help people mutilated in times of war? That skilled purveyors do real good in the world, restoring lives damaged by accident or design? Uh, no.
The only thing to look forward to is the fact that private hospitals have better magazines in the lobby.
I've been sitting here all day listening to Bona Drag & arranging appointments.
Valentine to my real life: the separation was poignant, filled with longing, I promise we will never be parted again.
Three months of leisure, I eschew you!
Or in other words, back to work!
I missed my office. I missed my chair!
In the JK Rowling books, you know how Harry's scar throbs when Voldemort gets angry? That is how I feel in USA. Except I have 350+ scars.
Oh America, land of big cars, bad food, good friends: I adore & abhor you most sincerely. Farewell, so long, goodbye!
One day we went out driving to look at all of Byron's youthful haunts. Our own disgruntled teenager quickly tired of the nostalgia tour so we turned the car toward modern entertainments.
The nearest movie theatre was at Westminster Mall but as we entered the parking lot something was most definitely not right.
Geese were nesting not just on traffic medians but straight across lanes. When Byron steered to avoid crushing them we noticed that the parking lot of what we remembered as the largest and busiest mall in the northwest Denver metro area was. . . entirely empty.
Baffled, we got out of the car and entered the building, where we found the movie theatre boarded. Storefronts abandoned. Food court empty.
The building was not closed - Spencer Gifts and a hybrid rug-and-scooter store are still operational, there were a half dozen customers wandering around, two or three security guards in attendance. Heat and electricity are on.
Someone with a sense of humour has established tableaux in the empty units - a vacant jewellery shop has a display of fake grass and a croquet set. Other stores have large fake flower arrangements, chairs and tables set up to look as though an important discussion has only just finished.
But the mall is most conclusively moribund.
Byron remembers the place when it opened, shopped here with his mother for years. My kids have had their photographs taken with Santa in the courtyard. Westminster Mall isn't just a collection of shops, it is a host of memories. In a place where lack of urban planning has allowed commercial development to become the heart of a community, the heart is suffering a long and protracted death.
I sat down next to the fountains, more shocked than I could articulate.
Living in a different country both distorts and clarifies feelings about the place you come from. I'm American, in a pure and deep way, by birth and affiliation. I grew up in a forest west of Seattle and I can still smell that place, still feel waves of homesickness for the mountains and water.
But the most significant proof that I am American is the fact that I dreamed myself European. I am a risk taker, a gambler, and, like my great-grandparents, a pioneer. I took what wasn't on offer, made something from nothing. I am now both urban and an expatriate.
What now, in the displacement? What precisely does being an American mean if I am travelling under a British passport? Sitting there in the abandoned mall, literally sick to my stomach but an eight hour flight away from the medical care I am entitled to receive, I wondered: what happens when you stop dreaming? What happens when you wake up, far away, and find that you don't want to go home? Where is home, what is home?
A year ago, desperate to move out of Cambridge, the inclination was to choose Berlin, Paris, San Francisco, New York City, anywhere, but I viewed them as temporary idylls. Without a second of deviation over forty years I have always thought of the Pacific Northwest as my home. The Puget Sound, the Olympics, the Cascades, high desert and wild ocean: home.
Now the reply has changed. I've acclimated. I've changed teams. Always prone to grand gestures, I have made a choice.
The word home means London.
Speaking of pioneer mythologies, America is largely responsible for giving the world the stereotype of the self-made man.
It would be so nice if it were true - but even those of us who were invented out of a scrap heap have someone in our history who deserves credit and gratitude.
That fellow we now call Professor Doctor Byron Cook did not spring forth from the earth a world-class research scientist. In fact, he did not even finish the eighth grade. He was an excessively problematic youth and he was lucky to encounter some adults who were willing to give him a chance.
Where? Within the walls of an alternative school called Mountain Open.
This week we went to visit his high school mentor, now retired from education and embarking on new adventures.
Of all the ways that writing as a profession sucks ass, the worst is dealing with the quesition "so what do you do?"
The question is hard to answer because people bring weird mixed up preconceptions to the conversation. Do I earn a living? Huh - would you ask a dental hygienist that question? Anyway: yes. Can you find my books in bookstores? Um. Well. Yes.
Books are often found in bookstores.
Though technically Lessons in Taxidermy also had a special supermarket edition with my face on the cover, a fact that gave me an excuse to avoid supermarkets entirely for awhile.
This perennial awkwardness is emphasised in the United States. Oh homeland! Why do you harbour such strange notions of success?
My work does have some fringe benefits, like free drinks and restaurant discounts. I get to stay in fancy hotels. I have the occasional lovely letter thanking me for one of the projects, and I've had strangers rush up to me in public settings and shout You saved my life! before scampering away.
But for the most part, writing (and publishing) are a hard anonymous slog. Exacerbated in my case by a reticent nature - in person, I do not promote myself nor do I even talk about how I spend my days. Oh, and I have a marked tendency to write under pseudonyms.
Yet although I do not announce, emphasise, or even take credit for the majority of my work, it is quite annoying to be at a dinner party and have the host assume that I do not work at all.
There is no remedy for this, short of carrying my clippings file around.
My so-called career is really quite average, with office hours and a regular income. In the United Kingdom (even in the esoteric environs of Cambridge) what I do is viewed as normal. But America persists in a logical fallacy: a belief that people in the creative fields are either famous or losers.
Why so extreme? I guess it is just part of our pioneer mythology.
One observation from my travels:
Now that I'm old, a different type of creepy stranger hits on me! Whereas I was once pestered only by peers, recently I have had unwanted attention from a larger variety of socio-economic and age groups.
Though it is possible I was just too stupid to notice in youth (this hypothesis has been verified by external auditors).
I'm something of an expert, so you can take my word on it: the best location in the whole world for an existential crisis?
The rental car courtesy shuttle, Denver International Airport.
Though there is one irrefutable thing you can say about the states - always plenty of parking!
I'm back in Denver in time for more family parties (good) and sporting events (bad).
Call me un-American if you like but yesterday was wasted in the suburbs, watching the Superbowl on television. For the first time in my entire life. Um. In a word? Ick.
After suffering through interminable and indecipherable hours of sportiness (the halftime show sucked, and I can't even tell you which team won the game) I learned that I am definitely not qualified to push cars out of snowdrifts.
Throughout most of the years I lived in the United States military recruitment ads were selling a version of service that looked like a video game: fast action, high adrenaline, cool. They were compelling, visually interesting. They made the military (and war) look like fun.
Later, when recruitment figures went down, the sales pitch became more specific and elaborate: the credentials you could gain, the boost to your career, a free college education - the benefits were the promotional angle.
The television advertisements (running in nearly every commercial break during all the shows I have watched) feature a young man playing football taking a break to tell his dad, sitting in a pickup truck, that he is going to join despite parental objections. The dad looks reluctant, but agrees - apparently because he accepts that the child is old enough to make independent decisions.
Another spot features a mother, washing dishes in agitation, with her (apparently teenage) daughter insisting that she is going to go. . . and the mother in obvious pain accepting the declaration. Hugs!
So the United States military accepts the premise that joining is a difficult, controversial choice that will upset your loved ones. Or more: the narrative structure of these advertisements stops just short of characterising the decision as "foolhardy."
Did I miss a transitional phase, when service was promoted as a patriotic duty?
Memo: I came here in search of GOOD weather. Not historic cold snaps!
Snow storms? Rolling blackouts? Stranded in the desolate ruins of downtown Houston?
No problem, because I discovered a secret portal to another world.
Looking for un-sexy, anti-fun, dystopian design? The Houston Tunnels have it all!
And, although the major freeways are shut, the office workers all tucked away safe at home, the city practically in a state of emergency and otherwise closed (including NASA), the Tunnels are open. Empty, except for the minimum wage workers selling unwanted sandwiches. . . but open.
In European hotels a "continental" breakfast (and remember, the key word "continent" refers to Europe) consists of yogurt, cereal, and sometimes bits of sliced meat and cheese depending on the region. With excellent coffee.
In England, the hotel breakfast is typically a "Full English." That means scrambled eggs, fried tomato, bacon, blood pudding, mushrooms, with baked beans. Served up with coffee or tea, though tea is the safest option.
In Texas (and since Texas acts like an autonomous nation, we will grant that status for the purposes of breakfast comparisons) I have been offered fried eggs, hash browns, grits, biscuits, gravy. No yogurt, no plain toast, and also, while tea is on the menu they've always just run out.
I've gone to extreme lengths to find my morning coffee fix and spend a lot of time every day giving cafe directions to desperate fellow visitors.
If you were to choose national allegiance based on the breakfast I would have to pick Europe, and more specifically, the cold grey parts of Europe that subsist mainly on yogurt.
This isn't even a preference - I literally can't eat the rest of it. Before I lost my gallbladder I never had problems but now? Ouch. Two bites of the wrong food puts me out of service for the rest of the day.
Lunch and dinner are just as perilous, so basically I haven't been able to eat on this trip. Even stuff that looks safe has apparently been injected with grease.
In England I peck suspiciously at the eggs, but mostly stick to dry toast. I would starve if I had to make do with Texas style dining!
Driving around in rural Texas I was amazed by many things, like abandoned houses, empty storefronts, and desolate car lots - all of which look as though they were thriving until recently. Like, say, weeks ago.
There were the usual number of alarming billboards, though my favourite was the one that proclaimed "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of all who threaten it."
In the portions of the towns still open for business there was a proliferation of stores selling "kolache" - whatever that is. Quick reference to internet sources claim that it is a word to describe a Czechoslovakian delicacy. However! I have traveled extensively in the part of the world that gives us the terms Czech and Slovak, I have friends born and raised in that region, and I have never encountered this pastry.
Or if I have, it wasn't like this: enormous gooey blobs of dough hustled on every single street corner, including numerous drive-through establishments. So you don't even need to leave your vehicle to acquire the fatty abundance.
Another example: why do all "Italian" cafes in the states look exactly like each other, but nothing like anything in Italy?
I should have some patience with the attachment of third and fourth generation Americans to notional immigrant rites and knick-knacks. I grew up with it: I am descended from one of the first families to settle in Poulsbo and have racked up the requisite visits to the Sons of Norway with drunken uncles. I could have been married in the hall, with rosemaling on the walls and a statue of King Olaf presiding. But me, personally? I never liked the hard circular fruitcake the cousins served at weddings; traditional, maybe, tasty, no.
I just cannot fathom nostalgia for baked goods. I certainly don't remember any of my actual immigrant relatives eating the stuff - they were far more excited by flashy new American products.
We'll let the kolache stand as a symbol for the entire trip: basically, I no longer understand my homeland. Did I ever? Probably not. Hence the decision to leave.
James grew up in a similar manner and lived abroad for a long time before moving back, so I asked his advice. He replied America is about ideas. Sensible is another country.
We hung out with Jake, first encountered in the deserts of New Mexico with the circus, more recently entwined with Chicken House memories, Sauvie Island beach parties, a curious and decadent month of mysteries. See? My friends do indeed get around.
More coffee, more food, Marisa was subjected to my petulant complaints that I can't eat or drink anything (except of course coffee, though I take mine mostly milk) now that I'm old. We sat around in a parking lot watching celebrities and motorcycle enthusiasts. A friend who didn't know we were in town drove by and spotted us, though we never did manage to connect.
But a large portion of our friendship has been conducted on tour so a visit with Marisa seems somehow incomplete without a road trip. She suggested San Antonio so we coaxed the teenager into the car and set off with high hopes for a circus museum (closed years before) and The Alamo, though our cultural and historical understanding of the site could be summed by watching Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
What a surprise for us then to read up on what actually happened all those years ago. I'll leave it to you, dear reader, to extrapolate my opinion.
Wandering along the river, taking a boat ride, looking at the grand houses, we were surrounded at all times by swarms of young uniformed military recruits. I've not seen anything like this in twenty years, and never in a civilian context.
The last time I talked to my original husband (a dozen or more years ago) he was living near San Antonio and managing the "largest gun store in Texas, which means the world." He reckoned he hated his job so much he either had to kill his boss or quit. I recommended the resignation option, knowing from previous travails with the fellow that even a joke about choosing the right weapon would make me an accessory to the crime.
Contrast between that life and this life? If I spend too much time thinking about it I get a headache.
Lucky Marisa was around. She listens to melancholy observations but never lets the narrative stray to morbid laments. When I point out that I was once a teenage army bride she just wrinkles her brow over the obvious idiocy of that choice, and we go back to matters more important. Like puns.
We were called "ladies." More than once! I bought some socks that read Victory or Death, then it was time to head back to our hotels, get ready to say goodbye.
Marisa is a good friend, dependable, steady, perceptive, patient. She is the secular equivalent of a godparent to my children, the executor of my estate, an esteemed honorary member of the family. She is there if I need someone to listen, or a ride, or a friend to fly to the other side of the world and just hang out. And I would do the same for her. We don't talk much, because we don't need to; our friendship occupies a space beyond performance.
In other words, though I never say it, I love her. And I miss her as much today as I did the day I moved away, so our fragmented infrequent visits are bittersweet; I feel like I spend a lot of time saying goodbye with a smile and crying in secret.
We make fun of our shared and individual idiosyncrasies, we have different levels of tolerance for all manner of nonsense, but we don't disagree about too much.
Except she has always maintained that we have plenty of time, moments and months and years ahead of us, an abundance of possibility, a wealth of potential, to alleviate fear and loss and pain.
I object, vehemently, replying You might, but I don't.
Our disagreement about the metaphysical meaning of time is profound, and without remedy. It would be ideal if we were neighbours, if we could perform together again. It would be easier if we could be casual, loll around on the front steps of houses in North Portland, go on long drives whenever the fancy strikes, sing together every Wednesday. Or just be around, somewhere nearby. But we did that, we were that: I left, she remained. Now we see each other maybe once a year, if we can work out the schedule.
We all have obligations and ideas, deviations and destinations, so even with seven weeks to choose from it was difficult for her to figure out a way to see us on this trip. But she did, flying down to Austin so we could sit around in the shade, drinking coffee and laughing.
She asked about my birthday and I rattled on about how exciting it is to get old, how much I adore the rackety life I created. My enthusiasm is genuine, verging on ecstasy: I didn't expect to get this far. The prospect of growing old is dazzling, not least because I have such brilliant companions going forward.
As we talked, I realised how long we have known each other, and that we were both right. It doesn't feel like it, but we've been friends for more than ten years - an extraordinary accumulation of time, just like she promised. Of course I'm greedy; I always want more. But what we have is fragile, genuine, precious - and it has survived across distance and years. How often can anyone say that?