Earlier this year I travelled to America for the first time. My wife had a visiting scholarship for a few months in Berkeley, California, and I thought I would set down some of our impressions before they wore off
Native Americans would rest for days, after a long journey, to let their souls catch up with them. My soul, a week after I touched American soil, was still roaming the skies above Greenland.
It was my first landing in America, and my first long-haul flight. Jet lag, I discovered, combines the symptoms of dehydration, nostalgia and paranoid delusion, combining in a pit of fatigue and disorientation that no amount of rest can seemingly fill or even patch up. It was the ideal state of mind in which to comprehend the current state of America.
We landed at what should have been bedtime and emerged from the fuselage into a sunny northern Californian noon. It was the end of January this year. On leaving the house earlier that day – that endless day – we had felt apprehensive. This was partly due to the time at which we left our home in Slovenia: I think it was Napoleon who said that four in the morning was the perfect time for sending the secret police round to arrest a suspect. But we also felt something more than apprehension; and that was because we were flying into the New Republic of Trump.
Our plane took us from Amsterdam to San Francisco a few days after the White House issued its first executive order, closing American borders to travellers from countries deemed hostile or suspicious. We had, obviously, no reason – no right – to fear. My wife, a Slovenian citizen with no Middle-Eastern stamps on her passport, was journeying to take a place for a few months at Berkeley as a Fulbright Scholar. I myself had no official business in the States. I am Anglo-Irish, with three of the seven Roman Catholic sacraments to my name. In addition to being fearful, I also felt guilty for the safety from interference my non-Muslim family would presumably enjoy. But I have a beard, and am dark-haired. I couldn’t be sure I would not attract suspicion. In the 1980s, an uncle of mine was regularly stopped at British airports for being Irish, young, male and dangerously bearded.
An old friend, who practices law in the city, was meeting us at San Francisco. We were elated and relieved when we saw him, waiting as promised in Arrivals. We were through customs in an hour, glowing from the courtesies we received, and the kind words and looks our young son attracted from the lady on duty who looked through our papers. Our friend had offered reassurance, but also a reality check. A day or two earlier, he had kindly written to say that we should have no problem at the airport: But also that he had spent many hours there over the past week providing pro bono legal assistance to people from the seven countries blacklisted by Donald Trump’s travel ban. These unfortunate wayfarers had been held, questioned exhaustively and, in some cases, simply shut up in spare rooms while border officials tried implementing their new orders. We had landed in a country afflicted with a condition that might be mistaken for jet-lag, but is more serious; a mass case of post-electoral cold turkey, with no prospect of rehab.
We missed the storm. Passing through border control, we saw no signs of people being bullied or detained. A few days later, an American federal court would declare Trump’s executive order illegal, and bring a pause to the bungling hatefulness of it all. Since then, we have had little to complain about, except the unreal price of groceries in California and the quite astonishing quantities of paperwork that settling, even for a short spell in America, demands. I had time and leisure to nurture self-pity for my jet-lag and the lingering head-cold that worsened it. On emerging into the unnatural but glorious sunlight outside the airport, I could enjoy the thrill of finally making it to America, and of seeing a dear friend for the first time in years.
The USA! As twelve-year-olds in rainy south-west England, we often said we wished we were American. We wore Nike shoes or longed for them, adopted the phrases of “Wayne’s World” and “Bill and Ted” and, a little later, revelled in the greasy-forelocked nihilism of grunge. At college, we pretended that we had always loved The Velvet Underground. And here I was at last! The streets truly were wider; the traffic moves more gently – it really does cruise, in gleaming lane upon lane, and at first sight the US-made cars and trucks seemed like minor celebrities, living images from countless TV series, shows that had instilled me with every life-quality from the A-Team’s gung-ho optimism to Seinfeld’s phlegmatic irony.
During those first days here, we felt what my wife calls the “smallness of Europe.” Looking at weather reports, or zooming in on our location on google maps, we were struck by how scarily big this country is, and by the unopposable violence it could launch at the world, the vast inequalities of power that define life on this planet. Trump’s administration has given so much further proof of its collective dementia, since those early days in January, that the fright of what it all might lead to has perhaps faded; the world is maxed out on the mounting Washington farce. Political numbness had its beginnings for me during our first ten days in the country. As my jet lag wore off, the sense of threat induced by the sharp shift in time-zone also eased. But for others who arrived the same day, I suppose that sense of endangerment hasn’t diminished.
This essay is part one of a three-part, monthly series.