We are almost gone now, flickering between presence and absence – at once, sharply alive to American life, pressing it hard into memory; then blurring out as we swing our focus towards the journey home. With England so much in our minds, the shortcomings of America stand clearer – the painful inequalities between rich and poor, the stress that fear of falling puts on all but the luckiest, the sheer illogicality of so much of how things work here. But also now we are more aware than ever of the beauty of America: its positivity, hopefulness and ingenuity. Although right now our hearts are in England, we feel already how much we will miss the brightness of Americans’ faith under pressure, just as we will miss the high blue skies under which they smile.
The journey of our life begins long before we are born. Our travels and choices are not only our own, but a continuation and echo of the journeys taken by our parents and grandparents, in an arc reaching far back into the past – and forward to the future, through our children and beyond. When we chose to bring our daughters to America, was the confidence to take that step born decades before, in their grandfather’s choice to leave India to give his young family a better future in England, sacrificing his own lifestyle and leaving behind everything he knew? And was he in turn inspired by and in a sense continuing the travels of his own father, who journeyed far around the world during the Great Depression, through New Zealand, South America and Europe? The seeds of our lives are sown by those who went before and who live still within us; we in turn are drawing the first lines of the lives of those who come after. The experience we have been able to give our three girls – learning, at an early age, how to live another kind of life in another kind of place – will help shape their lives and their understanding of who they are.
Philadelphia starts to crumble into a post-industrial wilderness only a little north of its midpoint, and just about there looms a rusted, drawn and hollow factory that signals and epitomises this decay. It’s a building we’ve often seen from afar by car, and won’t drive past again as we dropped off the Audi this week. Footing it back afterwards, we happened to walk right by, in a first and last chance for a close-up look. Despite a strong sense of having done what we came to this city to do, learned what we came to learn, these final few weeks still bring new encounters of this kind, which are somehow all part of the farewell. There will be many more goodbyes in the days to come, which amongst all the planning of our return are spent largely in a leisurely wander across the city.
Wearing four socks at a time has begun to feel quite normal, and we’re so used to the less-than-zero life now that we’re sweating as we skid across the sidewalks’ frozen memories of half a dozen snowstorms, which embrace each other in forgetfulness of who is who. Though the buds already swell upon the trees, it’s hard to believe that soon the city will burst briefly into spring, before blazing out into a thousand degrees of summer. But by then we will be gone, slipped gently back into the kind and even grey of England.
“BETTER NOT TELL YOU NOW” – what kind of a useless answer is that, to give to someone seeking serious life advice on a projected family relocation? Well, hmm, that’s what you get for asking the Super 8 ball on the counter in the 4th Street cafe, natch. But since more rational methods at decision making haven’t yet resolved the question, let’s give it one more try. “Shall we go back to England?” and a shake produces “WITHOUT A DOUBT”. Well, that’s pretty definite. But was it the answer we were looking for? (And should one really listen to a Super 8 ball’s advice?) A quizzed cappuccino and a short walk later, it dawns that the question was not specific as to time. OF COURSE we should go back to England EVENTUALLY. On that, the ball’s words resonate with our gut strings. But now? Or… later? It’s been a long time in limbo.
(Image shot from Urban Outfitters’ campus at the Philadelphia Navy Yard)
"My hands are hot!" complained the Little One as we trudged to school; that didn’t seem right. True, it had warmed to a balmy minus four this morning, but icicles still hung all down Pine Street and the sidewalks narrowed between crunchy hillocks of boot-stamped ice. Yet sure enough, before the day was out we were stripping down to single coats as we skipped around the steady drips of melting snow from rooftops; the mercury edged at last above zero. It’s been way too cold for way too long… This isn’t the end of winter, not even the beginning of the end, but it’s probably the end of the middle. By spring, we may be somewhere else entirely. It feels like time for change, in more ways than one.
It seems like much more than a week ago that we flew back from London, to find ourselves sucked into a polar vortex chilling the whole of the States to unprecedented lows. The past seven days have been mostly about just trying to keep warm, with occasional forays to fetch provisions and admire the icicles.
Distance need not tear us apart; it may be nothing at all, or even bring us closer. But it’s possible to discover you’ve travelled too far to find your way back home - and you won’t see that line until you’ve already made that journey. Although we may soon be home again, we wonder sometimes if we really ever will be. But perhaps that’s just because home isn’t somewhere you visit; it’s simply where you are.
Philadelphia’s first snowstorm of the season produced a respectable six inches and a day off school. The savage East Coast cold is on another scale from England’s vague chills; one coat at a time would always suffice back home and we almost never saw icicles - which here abound but never fail to delight the children, who snap them off to take to school or store in the freezer along with our resident snowman. Another few days and he’ll be all alone, as we head back to London for rainclouds and comfort.