Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I'm not sure if I'm decisive enough...

Bostonions are decision-makers. While I have always tended to think of myself as fairly assertive and confident in my decisions, I am completely out of my league here.

This realisation began in the lift last week. You know how it goes - you and a stranger get into the lift at the same time and you've got another 10 floors to travel before one of you will leave. You can stand awkwardly, staring at your feet and their feet and the horribly swirly carpet which big chain hotels specialise in, or you can throw in some anodyne conversational starter to make the minutes seem less drawn out and uncomfortable. The weather is normally a fairly safe converational starter. I was on my best behaviour, inoffensive, blandly dressed, and merely said, "It's a hot day today, isn't it." The man looked at me and began a quiet rant: "If you don't know whether it's hot or not, I'm not going to make up your mind for you. You're English, right. Only English people comment on the weather and then ask the person they're talking to whether their assessment of the weather is correct. You need to make up your own mind whether it's hot or not, don't ask me!" And with that, the doors opened and the journey ended. (Note to self: don't use the weather as a conversation starter in a lift).

A few days later I was at church with the girls. Hundreds of people, hundreds of children enrolled at Sunday school, a good sermon, a beautiful white clapboard building near Cambridge Common. As a stranger, I was asked to complete a slip asking why I had attended the service. It's a tough question, and I was tempted to get all philosophical about the rationality of morality and the possibilities of a greater Being, but there were only two possible tick boxes - was I (a) a member of another church community in a different geographic area, or was I (b) church shopping. After the service I asked one of the established church goers what 'church shopping' was - it's shopping around for the religious community with which you feel most comfortable worshipping. But what if you don't know what you believe in, I asked. She explained that very few people in America were atheist (or admitted to it, at least) but that virtually none were agnostic. That church had sub-groups (called committees, but hey! bureaucracy is everywhere) in Buddhist meditation, living with one's Jewish inheritance, a recently formed committee on paganism. They were even planning a big celebration of the Aztec Day of the Dead for November 5th (you see what happens when you don't have Guy Fawkes?) It struck me that it was okay to believe almost anything as long as you believed something - no-one was saying 'I'm not sure, what do you think?' or 'let me think about this a while'.

And then, today, I took the children to have their feet measured. You know the routine - children's feet grow, you take them to a shoe shop every few months, and someone sits down with them and measures their feet - in the really posh shops in England, you get those funky machines that my girls love to stand on which offer an accurate reading of the width and length of each foot and a commentary on their toe shape and arch. Then you work with the shop assistant to find the shoe which best fits your little darling's feet, and the shoe that fits is never the actual size that they measured because of a tersely explained logic that always seems obvious at the time but too complex to recollect in tranquility. So, today off we went to Boston. First step - find a posh looking shoe shop - easy peasy. We found a shop opposite Macys with shelves of beautiful shoes of every shape and size and labels name-dropping designers that I know and those I have never heard of (which says far more about my absence of taste than it does about the authenticity of the label). Next step - go up to the counter and ask if someone is available to measure the children's feet. There is a slight awkward pause, but it's a straightforward question and they say that someone will deal with me in a moment. Me and the girls peruse the shelves. Then a shop assistant comes over, takes us to a bench covered in shoes and pulls a dusty tape measure from a drawer hidden below the display. She asks the girls to take off one shoe each. One? She flops the tape measure around for a moment and announces that Iola is a 12.5 and Maya a 3. Can she help us to find some shoes that fit? She looks surprised - she has, she tells us, measured the girls' feet and told us how big they are. Why would we need any further help?

I'm guessing, in my non-decisive English way, that sometimes, here in Boston, the decision itself becomes more important than the actual knowledge it carries. Personally, I am quite interested in whether someone else thinks that it is warm or, indeed, wants to reminisce about the truly hot October of 1979 or the contasting weather in, say, Outer Mongolia. I'd love to be party to the struggles that someone might be having to reconcile themselves to a belief in God, or otherwise. And I'd really like my children to have shoes which fit their feet rather than just being given a number which offers a vague approximation of what size their feet might be.

The same barista has served me my coffee the past few mornings and he always asks, "And how are you today?" I am practicing a decisive smile and only allow myself to say, "Fine. You?" It's my first step towards becoming Bostonian (isn't it?). 

Friday, October 21, 2011

The first week in the USA

Some weeks pass quickly. This week has moved slowly, packed to its very seams with endless paperwork and appointments. I'm not sure why we thought that it would feel like a holiday - it hasn't. It has felt like a full week's work with overtime, jet lag, and not enough sleep. It's nearly a week since we arrived - a good time to take stock.

The first morning we picked up the local paper over breakfast to be faced with the headline announcement that Cambridge had the worst housing shortages known in the past twenty years. Nice! Our "destination consultant", Ken (kindly provided by Nathan's new employer), confirmed this at our first meeting: rents were at their highest, availability at its lowest. We dutifully explored surrounding areas: beautiful suburbs filled with lovely houses... but our hearts had already been captured by Cambridge. Maya had fallen in love with the main library, Iola adored the squirrels and the huge cheese bagels with cream cheese and cheese on the side, Nathan had found a vinyl shop on Mass Avenue, and I loved loved loved walking around people-watching. In desperation, we nearly moved to a block of managed apartments, with a swimming pool and a cinema room and no space for visitors or coats or furniture or Nathan. We decided not to move to a tiny apartment on a dodgy street with a suspiciously cross dog living next door. And then, just as we were losing the hope that anything affordable might appear in Cambridge, we found a rambling ramshackle flat north of Harvard with a rainbow room for Iola, space for our bikes and Nathan's records, and our own pet squirrel tree outside the balcony. We'll be moving next Friday, if our UK bank will talk to our US bank - address will follow.

Renting the house has been a case of culture shock. They have a realtor, we have a realtor, we have Ken, they have a Greek man in a sharp suit who oversees all paperwork from a glass office. The four of us, Ken and our realtor arrive at their realtor's office, with the intention of signing the paperwork. Ken and our realtor disappear into their cellar. They both come out of the cellar nodding and happy. We are happy but the sharp suited man says 'no' (with the same unquestioned authority with which the man from Del Monte says 'yes' - apologies for Canadian friends who might not know the ads). Ken escorts us out of the building. Ken and our realtor stand on the sidewalk and there is much waving of hands. Our realtor leaves and we are escorted back into the building and return to the same seats. Ken talks to Mr Sharp Suit about his Greek brother-in-law and restaurants and their church. The sharp suited man says yes and the filling-in of paperwork begins. Ken looks sad. We do not see our realtor again. When we discuss this with Nathan's colleagues, they tell us that this is normal.

So anyway, on the one hand we've been sorting out housing. On the other hand, we're trying to sort out school places. Yay - some of the best schools in the US are in Cambridge. Boo - the schools are mainly full. In fact, out of the eleven elementary schools, only two had places and one of those adheres to a core knowledge sequence approach which I renounced in my PhD. We walked over to the other school and looked at the shabby buildings and torn curtains and our hearts sank, and then one of the teachers passed us, invited us in, arranged a proper visit  for us and we were instantly converted. The kindergarten class performed a song for us when they passed us in the corridor, the classes only have 20 students, the library is epic, the computer room is filled with brand new macs, and the music, oh! the music... during our tour we dropped into a music lesson. As with so much, our first perceptions were completely wrong. The music lesson had just started, the children were sitting looking bored on the floor while the teacher tried to remind them of the composer of the month. Half a dozen children put up their hands, but I didn't catch the composer's name - I expected a classical heavyweight. The next minute, the teacher was telling them to get to their feet and they were all dancing a jazz sequence to Cannonball Adderley. Maya is going to love her music lessons here!

On the down side, it's a long bus journey each morning for a 7.55am start to the school day and, inevitably, the bureaucracy has tripped us up again. The children's immunisation records don't meet the requirements of school enrollment, so there have been more hours upon hours spent on the phone to English medical practices in Newcastle, Lancaster, and the Lakes trying to track down evidence that the girls have had chickenpox (they have, but we didn't take them to the doctors), and trying to prove that the English boosters contain the same vaccines as the American equivalents (they do, but the labels unfortunately are different). Now we need to pay $90 a shot for a few more vaccinations - the health insurance can't cover these until we have a social security number, the social security number can't be given to us until we have had 14 day's residence... There's an amazing service culture here in Cambridge where nothing has seemed to be too much trouble, until one is suddenly in the position of having neither social security number nor insurance. The only medical practice which will take us (without social security numbers etc) is grim and rude and unpleasant and the paperwork maze continues unabated. The positive thing is that we are all getting some insights into both sides of living in Cambridge.

Amidst all of this, we have done some exploring in our hire car which, to the girls' utter delight, looks like the red sports car out of the film Cars and forces their faces back into a G Force rictus whenever we touch the gas. We spent an afternoon in Rockport, rock climbing and watching the lobster nets being collected. We've walked around a tiny section of Boston - eaten pizza in an Italian restaurant in Boston's North End and clam chowder at Quincy Market. The girls have become obsessed by Dunkin Donuts (I strongly recommend buying shares in this company immediately as their profits must have increased incrementally this week, largely due to our two girls). We've bought books in toy shops and Harry Potter lego in the Harvard Coop book store (so that's what these students get up to!) We're happy and excited to be here and utterly exhausted by trying to navigate the complexities of the spaces where the English and the American systems collide.

Nathan starts work on Monday in Atlanta, Georgia; we move at the end of next week; the girls should be able to start school in the foreseeable future once all the paperwork has been resolved and then, I'm sure, the weeks will begin to gallop past as they usually do.