What the hell is a corn dog?
If you had said to me 5 years ago, ‘you’ll meet an American guy in the Australian outback and then move to a suburb of New York City’, I would have absolutely laughed in your face. At that time I was 19, had just returned from India and was planning my next backpacking adventure to Asia. I had visited America before and NYC had well and truly captured my imagination. At the age of 15 after spending a weekend there with my aunt and uncle, I had decided that I wanted to live there and added ‘own an apartment in NYC’ to my bucket-list. Over time this dream faded and was replaced with other grand ideas but that city always stayed in the back of my mind as somewhere special.
I remember being delighted by the energetic rush that swirled around the city like an invisible snow storm, there was a constant feeling of excitement in the air and it was hard not to be enveloped by it. The heaving mass of New York City embraces everyone and everything in it’s path, weaving them into the complex layers of this unique metropolis. From one neighbourhood to the next you could go from India to Italy to China and back again. Old buildings hunkered down in front of modern structures and there were candy stores that stretched 5 floors high.
So fast forward to April 28th 2017. My bags are packed for the final time and everything else I own is crammed into 15 cardboard boxes in my empty attic room. After months of visa stress that spanned 2 countries; the paperwork, the medical exams and the nail biting interviews are all over. I’m sat in a grimy chair at Birmingham Airport, It’s just me and my mum this time, no send of party or grand exits, just a second rate coffee drunk slowly to delay the inevitable. Gathering up all my baggage, which seemed like an absurd amount for travelling but not enough for emigrating, we made our way to the departure gate. We had stood here so many times together, with my same blue backpack, all 3 of us looking slightly older and a little more weathered than before. Mum, was of course in tears, she was waving goodbye not just to her only daughter but to her only child as well. I felt strangely numb to the whole situation, the part that is normally the hardest, this time, was the easiest. After all the drama of the past few months and with the notoriously tough customs squad still ahead of me, I was anxious to get my journey started.
I flew into JFK instead of Newark because the price was substantially lower. This was possibly, no definitely, one of THE worst decisions I have ever made. After 8 hours on the airplane, I was almost looking forward to an unpleasant, probing conversation with an immigration officer. Instead, I had to stand in an overheated corridor in a queue for 4 hours. 4 HOURS. By the time I reached the front I was almost too exhausted to stand, let alone deal with complicated questions. What felt like a lifetime later, dragging my luggage behind me, utterly defeated, I emerged into the arrivals hall of the country that was now to be my home.
During my first week of living in America, I felt hesitant to leave the apartment and go outside to explore. I was more worried about getting lost in a 5 block radius than I was in the whole sprawling mass of Mumbai. I was so conscious of the fact I didn’t have a phone that worked, I didn’t have health insurance and that I didn’t want to look like an idiot if I tipped incorrectly. To begin with we didn’t have a sofa, so I would sit on the radiator cover by the window that overlooked the street. I’d watch people go about their days whilst drinking cups of tea brewed from tea bags brought from England, but it just didn’t taste the same.
Montclair, where we are currently located, is a very unusual place when you consider what makes up the average American suburb. Residential areas are typically serviced by ugly strip malls alongside highways or shopping malls that require a car to reach. Hardly any towns have what we would consider a ‘town centre’, which results in a few errands turning into a whole days effort. Luckily Montclair is the exception to this rule of thumb, we are fortunate enough to have everything we need within walking distance. After growing up in a village where I had to take a bus everywhere, the novelty of being able to walk to get pizza is never going to get old.
We’ve definitely had a fun 8 months here together exploring our new home and seeing what the different seasons have to offer. In the spring we checked out the Montclair Film Festival and took day trips to other nearby towns, we began hiking almost every weekend and packed the car for short camping trips. Summer took us to the beach, leaving early in the morning to avoid the relentless traffic that ails New Jersey, we went fruit picking and joined walking tours. We bought tickets for Broadway shows and rugby games and events in the city. As the leaves began to change, we went to concerts, food festivals, explored botanical gardens and tested out new breweries. But there’s always that niggling feeling at the back of our minds that we need to save money instead. We find ourselves with not a large amount of money and an abundance of time, whereas before, we had money but no time to enjoy spending it. Such is life.
In my first few months in America I would go to NYC often, sometimes multiple times a week. In my initial excitement I had written a broad list of things I wanted to see and do within the 5 boroughs. I began joining walking tours to learn about the neighbourhoods and took advantage of all the ‘free days’ the city had to offer. Then in maybe the second month, my ancient iPhone 4 began playing up and google maps wouldn’t function, leaving me confused and lost. I know what you’re thinking… go back to basics and just ask someone or what about a good old fashioned map. Firstly, ‘just asking someone’ isn’t so easy, 6 times out of 10 the person you ask will be a tourist and have as much as an idea as you do. Secondly, a map is obviously very helpful but it won’t tell me how long it takes to get from a to b or which subway line is the best option. Should I take a local or express train? Are there any delays? Are any of the stations closed? One wrong decision can send you on an hour long adventure to The Bronx with the frustrating prospect of having to come all the way back again.
An accumulation of things led me to find myself in central NYC on the verge of tears just wanting to retrace my steps and go home. I’d gone to the city to join another walking tour which I had signed up to spontaneously the night before. I had became aware that I hadn’t been to the city for at least 2 weeks and that I should probably go- ‘probably’ being the key word in that sentence I later realised. Living only 40 minutes from New York City, I felt like I should go explore and delve into this new environment which I was lucky enough to live so close to. I was affected by this unseen and unwarranted pressure.
The whole experience of moving to America has been a turbulent whirlwind, it’s the first time I’ve ever felt truly ‘homesick’ during all my years away. After the early enthusiasm had worn off of being in a new place and setting up our apartment together, I began to feel like I was being pulled emotionally in opposite directions. Half of my heart yearned for us to continue travelling but then the other half was impatient to ‘settle down’ and to carve out our little piece of existence. With social media being so prominent within our lives today, you can’t help but be affected by the pictures people post online. Whether it’s someone you care about or not, the photo of them holding the keys to the house they just bought triggers doubts in your own mind about your life choices. Despite Sahar being the most wonderful, supportive partner I could ever wish for, I couldn’t help feeling despondent sometimes. His family are far away in Florida, my family is obviously even further and despite being able to talk to my friends online everyday, I would be caught unawares by bursts of loneliness.
I began babysitting Sahar’s bosses 4 year old daughter, who I made an instant bond with. Sahar jokes that my only friend here is a 4 year old. I joined the YMCA and started swimming at least once a week. I took up yoga after years of wanting to and then a few months later I joined the Pilates class also. I began volunteering at the local film festival venue during the evenings, I haven’t really made any connections with the other volunteers there but I do get to stay and watch the movies afterwards. Thanks to Emily, Isla’s mother, I began additional volunteering at Isla’s school one day a week with a class of 17 4-5 year old’s. I wasn’t sure what to expect and in all honesty, prepared for the worst which in my mind was being mauled by packs of children and somehow getting covered with snot in the process. I was surprised to find that they were in fact, cute little humans and weren’t so bad in larger numbers after all. Trust me, no one is more shocked than I am to discover that I love working with kids! I can already picture my high school friends reading this and shaking their heads in frank amazement.
The journey is far from over regarding the bureaucracy but with all the positive steps we’re taking, however small, however slowly, we are making progress. I’ve worked out how to tip correctly and have attempted to drive on the other side of the road. I’ve improved my knowledge of American geography and have got the hang of the NY subway. I’ve embarked on a book project of local literature and have brushed up on my American history. I’ve adapted my vocabulary and have experienced a variety of new customs.
When I mention about returning to the UK for a visit, I always say ‘go home for a visit.’ It’s a hard habit to get out of after 20+ years of saying that very sentence. Most of my friends are there, all of my family is there and a large majority of my memories have been formed on those little green islands. Be that as it may, from a young age I always had the feeling that the UK wasn’t actually ‘home’, it was merely the place that I just happened to live. As soon as I began to travel, I was overwhelmed with the certainty that I wouldn’t be living in the UK during my adult years. The UK will always be my homeland, but for now, New Jersey is home.