Monday, February 27, 2012

Learning to drive (again)

I love driving. I've always loved driving. I learnt on the flat back roads of North Lincolnshire (practicing hill starts every few yards of the only local hill). Over the past twenty years, I've driven big cars and little cars, vans of all shapes and sizes, pick-up trucks, mini-buses and campervans. I've driven in Germany (very fast but very carefully), in France (not quite so fast, not quite so carefully), and in Holland (just carefully). I've driven on beautifully maintained but unsignposted roads and woodland tracks in Finland, intermittent patches of tarmac with forests of road signs in Spain, and I've reversed down a winding single track tunnel in Madeira with an ambulance edging towards me with its blue lights flashing. I like driving.
When we first arrived in Massachusetts, Nathan's company gave us a hire car for three weeks. It was red and fast. Very fast. The girls loved it and sat in the back seat shrieking, 'Go faster, mummy.' But the thing is that, with my two girls in the back seat and the wisdom of a few years on my shoulders, I have become a careful driver: I obey the speed limit, I'm attentive to other road users, I'm careful to keep one eye on my mirrors and the other eye on what is going on several vehicles ahead of me. I keep generous stopping distances and don't jump traffic  lights. I am no boy racer: I just like driving and I think I'm pretty good at it (note: the majority of people think that they are better drivers than the average person. So do I. Even when the statistics of that statement are so obviously flawed).

Upon becoming resident in Massachusetts, one needs to take a driving test if one wants to drive legally. Bring it on, I thought - this will be one bit of the cultural process which I'll be able to do! Hindsight is a marvelous thing.

To be able to attain a learner permit, one needs to officially exist. It has taken me three months to satisfy the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) that I do exist. I have dutifully collected bits of paper with my name and address, my name and a photograph, my name and a notified signature from someone official whom I don't know but who will sign such things for a smallish fee. It has felt like a treasure hunt, but 6 weeks ago I had finally gathered sufficient paperwork to apply for my learner permit. Following the detailed instructions from the website, I traveled to the RMV headquarters, took a numbered ticket, and joined the hundreds of other people who were sitting on benches around the room. After waiting for three and a half hours, a black woman with an amazing smile waved me over to her desk. We smiled at one another - her smile was very amazing - and I unearthed all my bits of paperwork from my backpack.
'Do I,' she asked, 'have proof that I have been refused a visa?'
'I haven't been refused a visa. I am here on my husband's visa.'
'You need to have a letter from the Social Security office officially declining your visa application.'
'But I haven't applied.'
'You don't need to apply. You just need to be declined and to provide written evidence of that.'
She is still smiling but my cheeks have started to ache. She takes sympathy on me and draws a map of the Social Security offices. I don't need an appointment. I must just turn up to receive my refusal. It takes me a while to fit all my papers back into my bag. She smiles at me and tells me to come back to her window when they have rejected me.

I arrive at the Social Security offices, take a numbered ticket and go through the necessary processes until I receive a printed letter saying that I have been refused a visa. It does not say that I have not applied for a visa and I'm not sure that I like this. However, I do love driving and I am still able, at this point, to convince myself that this makes it all worthwhile.

The woman with the amazing smile has forgotten that she told me to come back and, for a while, I stand close to her window and try to catch her eye. While she doesn't see me, the people who have been sitting on benches for several hours do notice my attempts at queue-jumping. I am about to take another numbered ticket when she suddenly looks up, remembers me, and invites me over (later, when I leave the offices, I watch my back. Not everyone likes me that day). We admire my new piece of paper together and she approves my application and takes my photograph. I sit the online test which is required to be awarded a learner permit. Of the 25 questions, 5 relate to legal restrictions upon drivers who are under 21 and 2 relate to alcohol. I do not drink and drive. I am not under 21. My guesses are lucky and, when I return to the woman's desk, she high-fives me and gives me a brand new slip of paper and a telephone number. I am now able to apply to take my driving test. I telephone them and join their 6 week waiting list.

In the meantime, I decide to book a driving lesson. I am always keen to learn new things. This morning an old man in an old red car pulls up outside my house and indicates that I should get into the driving seat. We fill out lots of pieces of paper and I write him a check. The engine has been left running - he tells me not to switch this off.

Eventually, we are ready to begin our lesson. I reach to adjust the rear view mirror, which is angled towards him, and he tells me that I am not allowed to use my mirrors.
"But how can I see what's behind me if I don't have a mirror?"
"You only look behind you if you are reversing."
"But surely..." I begin. He interrupts me.
"You are in America now, you must drive the American way. You need to look where you are going. When you are driving forwards you look through the windscreen. When you are reversing, you look through the back window. No mirrors."
"No mirrors?" I echo, alarmed.
"No mirrors."
This becomes his mantra for the first part of our lesson.
I prepare to pull away from the curb - mirror, signal, maneuver.
"No mirrors. You signal, look over your shoulder and go."
We approach an amber traffic light and I glance in my mirror.
"No mirrors. You must look where you are going."
We do a three-point turn and I check my mirrors before beginning the maneuver.
"No mirrors." He is no longer talking in a nice tone of voice. Neither of us are smiling any longer. He tells me that I will fail my test. This becomes his new mantra for the rest of the lesson.
I see a person pulling out in front of me from a side street and I slow down.
"You will fail your test."
I wait for a person to reach the sidewalk before moving forwards onto the crossing.
"You will fail your test."
I give way to a bus which is indicating to come out in front of me.
"You will fail your test."

I have always been a confident driver but by the end of the hour, I am almost in tears. I no longer consider myself to be a better-average-driver. In fact, I think that I might fail. On the positive side, I've always preferred to be in a minority.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Maya and Iola's cowboy play

Scene 1: The bar owner and the cowboy. 
The desert. A cowboy (Iola) is riding through the sands on a wild horse. She arrives in a small town. The bar owner (Maya) greets her. 
Maya: Howdy, stranger. Get off your horse and drink your milk!
The cowboy dismounts from her horse. Her horse does not like it. 
Iola: Howdy!
Maya: Where are you going on such a fine day?
Iola: To the Sonoran desert. There are a lot of scorpions there, but I have found the largest scorpion ever.
Maya: Well you'd better be on your way then.
Iola: Can I have some baked beans and some more milk?
Maya (giving her the milk): Here you go. You'd better not go to those bars over there because they've got all those revolver things where they say: "PUT YOUR HAAANDS UP".

Scene 2: The ice cream van and the cowboys
Members of the audience are invited to ride horses alongside the cowboy as they make their way towards the Sonoran desert. 
Iola: The scorpions are dangerous! But I have got a lasso to round them up and catch them for my collection. I have got 18 already.
Audience member giggles uncontrollably. 
Maya (bar owner driving after cowboys in an ice cream van): Howdy there. Do y'all want some ice-cream?
Iola: I do not like ice cream, but my scorpions do.
Maya: Well, what type do they want?

Scene 3: The horse race
The bar owner gets out of her ice cream van and gets onto a horse. The horses start to race. They are wild. 
There are lots of shouts of "yee-haa" and "giddy up".
Suddenly, Maya and Iola fall off their horses. Mummy surrenders. 

THE END (until next time)

NOTE FROM MUMMY: Cowboys should always remember to eat lots of fruit and vegetables...... (whether you like it or not, Maya.... It's good for you. Just ask your grandparents.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Learning to speak American in 24 hours

Each morning, the girls eat their porridge, drink their juice and enjoy their yogurt drinks (No, mummy! Not 'yog-urt' but 'yo! gurt'). They head upstairs to brush and floss their teeth, put bands or barrettes in their hair, and then get dressed. They wear underwear (They're not called pants, mummy, pants are trousers now), jeans and sweatshirts (mummm-y, it's not a jumper anymore!). Depending on the weather, they put on their sneakers or snow boots. Neither one has shoes and trainers are something that Maya will start to wear in a few years' time when her body changes shape. Fortunately hats, scarves, coats and gloves are the same in both languages, which saves us valuable minutes before we scamper down the sidewalk, use the cross-walk through the intersection, and stop at our bus stop for our much loved yellow school bus and equally loved bus driver (who is baffled and delighted in equal measure by Maya and Iola's accents).
Early on a Monday morning, Nathan puts his cases in the trunk of a cab (boots are something you wear on feet) and rides to the airport where he catches an airplane (there are no aeroplanes, not even paper ones) to his latest work placement. His irony is being carefully policed by his colleagues before it causes clients to take possible offense and he relies heavily on the American spell-checker on his computer. It's easier for me, I fluctuate between American English and English English in my novel - consistency can come later!
Maya and Iola like school and both have settled in well to their new classes. Iola particularly likes recess (not playtime, mummy, we're not babies!) and gym (it's just gym, mummy. Yes, even if we are playing ball sports on the school field). Maya likes math, which has lost an 's' and gained a whole new system for long division. She isn't so keen on cursive, and complains that it is the fourth type of handwriting that she has had to learn to do (each school she has attended has had different required letter formations... fortunately the computer keyboards all look the same). She has easily mastered the new spelling system with its lost 'u's and its preponderance of 'z's. A 'z' is now a 'zee', not a 'zed': I have learnt that the hard way from the baffled looks I received whenever I tried to spell out my name in our first few weeks here.
I work on my novel, go for walks, clean the house, and buy the groceries. At the supermarket, I have been known to accost passers-by and ask them to name the vegetable that I'm holding (fennel is giant anise, aubergines are egg-plants, courgettes are zuchini, coriander is cilantro, spring onions are scallions, and chillis come in 12 different varieties).
The girls both have homework to do when they get home and we lay out our books and pencils on the dining room table. We have erasers in case we make mistakes (rubbers are something that Maya has been shown in her sex education class).
After homework, it's tea-time. The girls drink cider (apple juice) or soda (fizzy pop, not fizzy water). I prefer coffee, which is sometimes easier to make at home than to spend time navigating the long list of possibilities at the local coffee shop - half-and-half, 2%, skim, almond, rice, or soy milk? Dark, light or medium roast? Drip or Americano?
At nearly-but-not-quite-10 years old, Maya is allowed to walk alone to the local store. She knows the rout by herself (pronounced 'rout' to rhyme with 'shout', there are no roots in this area). Iola begs her to buy crackers, candy, or cookies. She no longer wants sweeties: a 'sweetie' is something that her class teacher calls a child when they have said something cute, and neither of them have any desire to eat biscuits: around here, biscuits are something that you eat with gravy. As the evenings get lighter, we sometimes all go to the tot-lot to play on the swings. It's not that different from the play parks back home, it just has fewer letters.
By the time it's nearly 7 o'clock, the girls are heading up the stairs to bed. Iola is appalled if I remind her to use the toilet (mummy, I know myself when I need to go to the bathroom). We read stories and sing lullabies, and I feel great about how well the girls have adjusted to being American kids and then Iola announces, 'Mummy, it's not that I'm physically tired. It's just that I'm aubergine tired.' And I have no idea what she means. Period.

Monday, February 6, 2012

There's a (political) party going on...

I’ve been listening a lot recently to the radio and reading the news and eavesdropping on conversations in the locker room at my gym… there’s an election going on in America, you know. It’s fascinating stuff (not quite as fascinating and as important as the Superbowl, but we don’t like to talk about that in New England any more). I’m not all that familiar with politics, but I thought that I’d explain what I know…
There’s an election about to happen.
Well, not actually an ‘election’ as yet… just the lead-up to an election. So that’s all straightforward, right? There is a ‘good’ party and a ‘bad’ party. The people in the ‘good’ party think that they are right and that the other people in the ‘bad’ party are, obviously, wrong…. about everything, ok. The details really aren’t that important – the other people are just wrong.
OK, I will admit that it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Because the people in the same party, who all agree that broadly they believe the same thing which is, most importantly, different to the things that the other party believe in, don’t actually agree with one another. So, there are two levels of disagreement going on. The big disagreements with the other party (a bit like disagreeing with the way that the Smiths who live across the road have landscaped their garden) and the smaller, let’s call them meta-level, disagreements within one’s own party (a bit like the disagreements over where the vegetable patch should go in one’s own garden and finding out who over-pruned the climbing hydrangea last season).
I feel a bit like I'm watching a dysfunctional family on the verge of a melt-down. But the main difference is that rather than discretely ripping one another to pieces in the privacy of their own backyard, they are allowing the entire world to watch the process. No-one is really interested in the ‘Smiths’ across the road; no, it’s what goes on within one’s own family (party) that counts and they’re going to expend all their time and money proving that other family members are wrong. Imagine, if you will, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to prove that your younger brother shouldn’t have pruned that particular bit of the yew tree and that your older brother once said, even though he denies it now, that he liked daffodils. (For the sake of the analogy, I have used poetic license with the figures: the Wall Street Journal actually estimated that Republican candidates had spent $23.5million on television ads by the beginning of February 2012. This has not been an ideological media campaign which provides enlightenment around the party’s philosophies and vision for the future. This has not been an attempt to speak truth to the electorate or, more pragmatically, to speak truth to those who are not really very likely to vote, but have their own television sets. This campaign has focused on the really important stuff – trying to prove that one candidate within the party is better than another by ridiculing what they might have, but probably didn’t, say.)
Of course, my analogy is poor. It’s meant to be. It’s as poor as the advertising campaigns that don’t really help to provide information about what the candidates actually believe in, or as poor as the memory of some candidates who lie brazenly about things that they have been documented as saying, or as poor as the personal morals of some of the candidates. To talk about the real, actual stuff would be too horrific. As one woman said in the gym, ‘We have to talk about it in terms of the Grand Old Party and the Tea Party because it sounds so much better than saying ‘a bunch of racist, sexist, homophobic, right wing reactionary bigots with no sense of history, morality, or fairness.’’
But maybe we’ve just blown it all out of proportion. As a radio commentator explained to me last week, in a year’s time we’ll be watching the latest president sitting miserably in the White House wearing a tee-shirt which reads, ‘I spent $57billion coming to Washington and all I got was this lousy congress’.