London is noisy. The tube trains rattle their way through the tunnels and grind metal on metal as they draw in alongside the platforms. The buses squeak shrilly and lumber loudly. The road traffic coughs and roars impatiently at traffic lights before lurching on its way.
Then there are the people. My ears are filled in the streets and shops here with a London accent and cadence that isn’t my own – the diphthongs “au” and “ɑi” sound more drawn out, and most of the “t”s are dropped or at least stopped short. And people – especially women, it seems – speak loudly. I hear a lot of grumbling and indignation from both adults and children, though also courtesy and helpfulness. And I hear my own accent morphing in conversation, to reflect back what I hear from whoever I’m talking to.
On Monday and Tuesday this week, the sounds of drumming and shouting filtered into the house at about 8 a.m. It was a group of employees from the Flower Lane Autism Service, just across the road, who were protesting a 9.5% pay cut. Many services such as this have been privatised by the local council, leaving workers at the mercy of largely unregulated private companies. No such thing any more as “the going rate” for people who with considerable dedication care for adults with severe social and behavioural difficulties. I took out a tray of coffee and biscuits (cookies, to American speakers) in solidarity – and talked with them in my best demotic to find out more.
I’ve also been out walking in the greener parts of the suburb of Mill Hill where we are currently based (at my father’s house). You can get away from most of the traffic noise by taking the smaller streets and footpaths. There’s plenty of construction going on, though, both in private houses and on building sites. So the shriek of drill and the blows of hammer infiltrate the pockets of leafy idyll – just as the high drone of leaf-blowers used to disturb the weekend afternoons in the hills above Los Gatos in California. I’m observing, not complaining.
One other sound to report: the husky yet tuneful humming of the Indian woman in the Post Office who served me when I went in to get photos taken for a new British driving licence. I asked her what she was singing, and she told me that she writes lyrics – in Hindi – to express her feelings, and sings them to herself. I was amazed and touched by this sharing of a private world.
My last morning in the Bay Area (at least for a while) is overcast and so somewhat reminiscent of home (by which I now mean the UK). Friends from the JewelTones – who I sang with for a few gigs – kindly got me and Matisse (the cat) to the airport. Cats going on international journeys have to travel as “manifest cargo” – in the hold, in a crate whose size is determined algebraically, and accompanied by paperwork which shows them to be microchipped and vaccinated against rabies, which paperwork has to be endorsed by an agent of the USDA, not more than 10 days before the journey. The whole process is expensive – about $1700 for the cat alone, not counting the extra money I paid for a direct flight – and stressful. The woman at the desk in the cargo area was new to the job, and frequently needed help from a more experienced colleague in filling out all the boxes on the computer. But there was Matisse’s Airway Bill number, printed out on a sheet of paper, and then came a wodge of new forms to sign, and a receipt, and a lot of yellow and black tape to stick everything onto the kennel. So I left him (mewing and backed into a kennel corner), trusting to the system to deliver him, alive, to London Heathrow in about 12 hours’ time from now. That’s how much we love our 10 year old tabby US domestic short-haired cat. (You can choose to focus on the $1700 or on the day of terror that we have inflicted on him).
As it turns out, my flight to London from San Francisco almost exactly coincides with my husband Chris’s flight from Dublin (where he has been attending a conference). So if Plan A works, he will pick me (and Matisse) up tomorrow. Maybe I’ll draw a graph of our relative velocities over the next day. I’m hoping that it will end up happily on the x axis….
The calm before the drizzle. The guest bathroom is filling up with the things that we’re not taking with us. The clutter on the desks is gradually being transferred into boxes. The cat has been microchipped and vaccinated. I’m beginning to re-use English spelling. And I’m looking forward to going back to my native land after nearly 15 years in the USA.
All but three of those years were spent in Columbus, Ohio, a Midwestern state that not many Brits know much about. (As today’s New York Times describes graphically, 75% of Ohio residents were born in the state – and only one in 20 come from outside the USA). We’ve also lived for a spell in New Jersey and, for the last 18 months, in the San Francisco Bay Area, in California. Our sons are not coming back with us: now in their twenties, they’re staying in Chicago and Columbus where they work and study respectively. So it’s a big move. We will doubtless be back in the USA for visits and sometimes for work, but our sights are set on London.
One of the liberating things about living in a foreign country is that people can’t read you – and pigeon-hole you – as quickly as they do at home. Over the long term, though, that insulation from people’s judgement and understanding can also contribute to feelings of loneliness. When we first arrived in the US, our official status was “resident alien”, which is a good description of how it actually felt sometimes. And in the other direction, even after fifteen years here, and becoming US citizens, we can feel utterly without landmarks on meeting someone new: it is hard to place people.
So the thought for today is that we think we’re going back to somewhere that will feel more familiar. And we wonder if that will be true.