I Voted!

I voted early this morning.

I was so excited and enthusiastic.  I literally squealed when I saw my name and signature in the electoral register.  I had had nightmares about my name not being in there because I became a citizen and registered so recently and was all prepared for requesting a provisional ballot.  Turns out the admin for voting runs more smoothly than most American bureaucracies I have had to deal with.

Five years of living in a country while not enfranchised to vote has been stressful.  I am raising my kids here and I pay taxes here and I intend to stay here so I am invested in this country.  Today I was relieved to be able to exercise my right and responsibility as a US citizen.

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Citizen Pict

I emigrated from Scotland to America as a Green Card holder in October 2013.  My husband has been a dual US/UK national since his birth and our children became dual nationals when they became resident in America, made official by them obtaining US passports in October 2015.  I, therefore, have been the only alien in the Pict family for quite some time now.

My original plan had been, for many and varied reasons, to wait to apply for citizenship until closer to the time when my 10 year Green Card would expire.  However, the 2016 presidential election was tough on my psyche and it didn’t get any easier to live in this country without having the ability to vote in 2017.  I have always exercised my right to vote so being entirely disenfranchised and unable to participate in the democratic process was really challenging.  That, therefore, became the primary reason why I decided to bring forward my timeline for becoming an American citizen.

The immigration process was complex and expensive.  The naturalization process was not quite as challenging and not quite as expensive but it still involved a whole load of tricky bureaucracy and a massive chunk of money.  It also involved a large investment of time and a fair dollop of stress.

The first stage was to submit my application, which was time consuming and sometimes had me raking through the dusty, musty corners of my memory banks, but nowhere near as complex as the immigration application had been.  This was then sent off to Chicago to be picked over and start the ball rolling.  However, no sooner had my application arrived in Chicago (I was tracking it) than I received a letter informing me that I was to report to a USCIS field office to have my biometrics taken.  No problem except that I had just one day’s notice between receiving the appointment card and the date of the appointment.  One day.  I flew into instant panic.  My husband was working in New York so I had to organise childcare backup for if I had any sort of delay outside school hours – however unlikely – and I had to scramble to find someone to take my place at work.  That fits neatly into a single sentence but it involved a whole lot of stress.

On the day of my appointment, I dropped off my youngest kids at school and drove off into northern Philly.  Thank goodness for Google maps because I had zero clue where I was going.  I did, however, meet almost every red light and had to stop at a rail crossing while an exceedingly lengthy cargo train rumbled past so I arrived at the USCIS field office with a mere five minutes to spare.  When I walked into the building, it was like a wasteland.  There was one other client visible and then everyone else was an employee.  The whole appointment, therefore, went smoothly and rapidly and ultimately felt like a giant waste of my time.  I had already had biometrics taken (eye scans and fingerprints) when I emigrated and I have had my fingerprints taking subsequently for volunteering and employment purposes.  The appointment, therefore, felt like replication.  The staff were friendly and courteous and worked efficiently so in no time at all I had been processed and sent on my way with a study guide for the tests.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It is unbearably stressful to be in any sort of limbo situation.  We had been through this before with the Immigration process.  While we had to move forward with our lives as if we were relocating to America, the fact that at any stage either the immigration process might have had a hiccup or the employment prospects for my husband have fallen through, we would have had to abandon the whole plan and root ourselves back into our lives in Scotland.  However, that always felt as if it had forward momentum.  The Naturalization process felt like suffocating in stasis.

After the Biometrics appointment, I had zero contact from USCIS for months.  In many ways, that was a positive sign.  They did not need to request further information from me which meant my application was sound and, of course, they would have contacted me had they decided to outright reject my application.  However, to receive no correspondence for months, no update, no indication that progress was happening, however slowly, was painful.  It was also stressful because I could not commit to anything and had to opt out of certain plans because I had no idea when I might be called for Interview (and then the oath taking) but I was pretty sure it would be at short notice when it did happen.  Granted I am prone to stress and anxiety but it really was a pretty intense period of waiting.

I started to log into my USCIS online account at least once a week to see if there were any updates on my case.  In doing so, I discovered that I could monitor the progress of the Philadelphia field office through all the N-400 applications they were handling.  Whereas it used to take a few months from submitting an application to being called for interview, they were estimating at least a year.  I heard from other sources that this backlog is happening all over the US due to understaffed USCIS offices having to handle a massive increase in applications prompted by the political climate.  While not altogether surprising, therefore, it was a bit deflating.  It was estimated that I would be called for interview in the Autumn of 2018 which was not just a long time away but would also prevent me from registering to vote in time for the midterm elections.  I continued to obsessively check my USCIS account and track the field office and there was never any change.  My husband and I decided, therefore, that it was probably safe to plan out a summer vacation.  Nothing elaborate, nothing involving crossing an international border, and mostly things that could be cancelled with a full refund at 24 hours notice, just in case.

So obviously – because Murphy’s Law – a mere two days after the refund deadline had passed for the one vacation commitment that didn’t have a generous cancellation policy, I logged into my USCIS account and learned that I was being called for interview.  Of course, no date or time was provided with the electronic notice.  Nope.  It was just a notification that I would be receiving a notification by mail.  You know what a stress-head I am so you can probably well imagine the panic I had on seeing that notice and the anxiety I experienced waiting for the paper notification.  I found I was actually hoping for the same extremely short notice I had received for the Biometrics appointment because then it would be before my vacation.  I learned that the notice for an interview is usually between 2 and 4 weeks, parameters that were definitely going to scupper our travel plans.  Anxiety was developing into panic and attempts at problem-solving all the possibilities.  Could we delay our departure?  Could we return home early?  Could I fly back to Philly from random road trip location A and get a flight to random road trip location B?  After over a week of intense waiting for the letter to arrive, it was good news: my scheduled interview date permitted us to go ahead with our travel plans and I even had a day to spare.  Phew.

A few days after returning from our road trip, therefore, I entered the USCIS office in Philadelphia for my interview.  I went through security and got checked in about 20 minutes before my scheduled interview time but I had no sooner sat down – not even enough time to open my book – when my name was called.  The officer who interviewed me was friendly and jolly which immediately put me at ease.  After a little bit of introductory admin – such as checking my IDs and Green Card – I was launched straight into the tests.  There are 100 possible questions on American civics, history, and geography from which the interviewing officer will ask 10.  The first time I took the test of the full 100 questions, I got 96 correct.  After studying and really concentrating on dates and numbers (those being my weakness when it comes to memorisation) I was regularly getting 100% but you know how neurotic I am.  Those four wrong answers from the first run through niggled at me.  I was making anxiety mountains out of molehills.  I got 100% on the test.  I obviously had zero concerns about the English reading and writing tests and passed those.  I was then asked a series of questions that were really just a means of ensuring that my oral answers were consistent with those given on my submitted paperwork.  A few more bits of admin and that was it.  Interview over.  I was approved.  The letter had told me to allow for two hours.  I was done in 30 minutes.  I guess they decided that a marriage of 22 years with 4 kids probably meant this was not some sort of sham Green Card marriage and that no intense interrogation was required.

Now there was just one final step.

It took about three weeks to receive the date and time of my Naturalization Oath Ceremony in the mail and, when it arrived, it gave me under a week’s notice.  USCIS really does like to keep us on our toes.  Luckily I don’t work during the summer months and my in-laws had coincidentally flown in two days earlier to they could babysit the children.  I had swithered about having the boys attend the ceremony but I could not obtain information about provision for guests or how long the ceremony was likely to be so we decided – given the grandparents were around – to leave them at home.  My husband had no choice but to take some time off work to accompany me not just because I wanted someone there at the ceremony for me but also because I could not drive myself, having just had general anaesthesia for oral surgery.  Yeah, the timing of this ceremony was not particularly great given the state of my mouth and the level of discomfort I was in but I was not about to postpone it.

My ceremony was scheduled for 9am on Friday morning.  There were 56 other people taking the oath of allegiance with me during the ceremony and we represented 31 different countries.  I was the only one from the UK.  They kept us all very organised and had us process through various administrative processes according to the rows we were seated in.  I was the sixth person into the room and was, therefore, in the front row.  The chap who was “compering” the ceremony was very genial and warm and helped put us all at ease.  I had this weird, illogical anxiety that something might go wrong at the last moment.  A contributing factor was the fact I was still very woozy from the after effects of the anesthesia and strong painkillers which led me to make an error on one of my forms, thankfully not a critical error but one that left me with a malingering feeling of paranoia.  I had to return my Green Card as part of the Naturalization admin.  It felt weird to be giving away something that has been so important these past few years and something which was quite a bit of an ordeal to acquire.  There were some videos to watch and then we all stood for the oath taking part, which was led by another USCIS official.  At that point, at approximately 10am, I became an American citizen.  I was given my Certificate of Citizenship and all the formalities were over.

By 10.30am, I had registered to vote.  I will have to change my status with the Social Security department and then I will have to apply for a US passport so I still have some bureaucracy to plough through.  However, the big milestone is now done and dusted.  I am now Citizen Pict.

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The Education Learning Curve

Today my children all return to school.  This year, I have two left in Elementary – one of them in his last year there – and one in Middle School and one in High School.  With four boys in three different schools its going to feel like a second job for me to keep on top of their schedules, deadlines, requirements, and commitments.

Every new year of having my kids in American schools has brought with it new challenges for me as a parent.  Between technology developing too rapidly for my grey matter, the generation gap, and a vocabulary gap because of being British, it can be difficult for me to understand what a homework assignment even requires the kids to do.  I do a lot of googling and watching demonstrations of methodologies on YouTube.  This year, however, with one kid in High School, I feel like I am in for an even steeper learning curve than ever before.

My oldest and I attended a High School induction day a couple of weeks ago and that revealed to me how out of my depth I was.  I went all the way through High School, an undergraduate degree, and a postgraduate degree, and I then taught High School.  I am, therefore, well versed in education and the transition between primary, secondary, and tertiary education.  In Britain.  When it comes to how all of this functions in America, I have next to nothing.  And I had better learn quickly because the years are rapidly flying past.

The talks that were delivered at the induction event involved a huge amount of assumed knowledge.  Acronyms were being bandied around with no allowance for anyone, like me, who had only a scant idea of what they stood for, what concepts they represented, or how they pieced together into something coherent.  What I think I grasped, however, is that there is a through-line from the beginning of High School to its conclusion that will determine prospects for tertiary education.  Yikes.  I thought I had a couple of years to figure this stuff out.  Apparently not.  So I need to hit the books myself now and get on top of such things as GPAs, SATs, ACTs, credits, dual enrollment, AP courses, and all of those other things I am clueless about.

This new experience, this new area of life I need to research, is another stark reminder that my adult life and experience was all but reset to zero when I emigrated.  Whole areas of my knowledge were voided and made irrelevant and – even after nearly four years of living in America – I am still a stranger in a strange land trying to fill those gaps in knowledge with new learning.  I am an old dog so new tricks are hard but I will work hard to understand what I need to know.

From Surviving to Thriving

Today marks exactly three years since my four children and I stepped off a plane from Britain to join my husband and their father and embark on a new life in America.  Three years is a weird way-marker because in some ways it feels like we have not been here that long and in other ways it feels like we are way more established here than we would be after a mere three years.  We are inbetweeners.

Looking back, I think the first year of life here was very much about just surviving.  Back then I was so focused on getting through each day and each new challenge that I could not distance myself enough to have adequate perspective to recognise that we were just surviving.  I was just putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes stumbling, but mostly moving forwards.  However, so much has happened in these first three years that have helped us put down roots and start to feel settled here.  We bought a house – which was a massive deal for starting to “belong” – and everyone got settled into rhythms and routines, adjusted to new schools and work places, made new friends, developed new traditions to meld with the old ones we imported from Scotland, passed driving tests, and the children officially became American citizens.  Now I alone am the only Green Card holder, the only alien.

All of these things mean that we are well out of survival territory.  But nor are we quite thriving here yet or at least not in every area of life.  The transition takes far, far longer than one could ever anticipate.  It’s a long journey.  And there are road bumps.  And tolls.  And wrong turns that need to be corrected.  We are still moving towards the same fixed destination but it is just taking a bit longer than we expected.  So, to mix my metaphors, we are in this weird No Man’s Land between Surviving and Thriving.

Long time readers might recall my Lego nightmare and how it became a metaphor for our immigration experience.  I am happy to report that most of the Lego sets have now been rebuilt and are displayed on shelves and played with regularly.  However, there are a few sets left to build and there are some that are going to be extremely challenging to rebuild because it seems that some critical pieces are missing.  We will get there with the Lego and with the feeling of being settled enough to thrive.

Lego as a Metaphor for Immigration

In the Summer of 2013, when we knew for sure that we were going to be emigrating from Scotland to the US, I had to go through the process of selling, donating and ditching loads of our possessions and packing up what we were keeping in order to prepare it to be shipped across the Atlantic.  One of the more tedious jobs I did was to spend an entire day packing up my sons’ very many Lego sets.  I took each set in turn, broke it down into individual bricks and pieces, placed those bricks into ziplock bags, and labelled each bag according to the information on the building instruction manuals.  It was the perfect job for a control freak mother like me but goodness it was laborious and my thumbs were throbbing by the end of the day.  Still, all the effort was worth it as it meant all those Lego sets could be safely transported across the ocean, taking up as little space as possible, and could be easily rebuilt set by set once we were settled in Pennsylvania.

That was the plan for the Lego.  It was also the plan for us.

We were packing up our lives in Scotland, breaking things down into fragments, compartmentalising, putting things in order, imposing a system on the chaos.  I assumed there would be a difficult transition period, a settling in phase full of stress and glitches and the odd set back, a need to feel our way through the jumble just like all those loose bricks jumbled in their labelled bags.  But we would be rebuilding a new life on another shore, piecing it all back together again in no time at all.  Lickety split.  Tickety boo.

That’s not how it turned out with our transition period.  It’s not how it happened with the Lego.

Not long after our shipping container finally arrived, a visiting child took it upon himself to rummage around in all the plastic storage crates full of toys.  One such crate contained all of the ziploc bags of Lego.  The child opened up every single one of those ziploc bags, about 50 in total, and emptied them all out onto the floor.  My kids were incandescent.  I felt bereft.  And stressed.  And overwhelmed.  A full day’s worth of work, my attempts to impose order on the chaos, to make rebuilding easy and fun, were all completely and utterly undermined.  All my hopes for an easy rebuilding project were dashed.  I looked at that Lego all over the floor, thousands of bricks in a tangle of mess, and I felt deflated.

Settling in and establishing our lives in a new country did not go to plan either.  There were big things I expected to be much more trying but which were pleasingly easier than anticipated; however, there were other things that proved much more difficult to navigate, things we did not anticipate.  We had been focusing so much on the challenges of living in a new country that we overlooked the challenges born of changes to our family dynamic, the schedule and shape of our everyday lives.

That transition period has still not concluded over two years into life in America.  We are really only starting to come to grips with everything immigration has involved now.  I had to be gentle with myself, accept that things were going to be rocky for a while, that we would stumble a bit, and give myself permission to feel frustrated and annoyed and stressed and anxious.  I had to give myself the gift of more time.

Likewise, I left those Lego sets for a while.  My kids played with the few we had already built and the rest of the bricks languished in a huge storage crate waiting for me to feel ready to tackle it.  It was too stressful to contemplate rebuilding from that scale of chaos.  I had to gift myself more time.  A few months ago, I decided to tackle the issue.  I decided that I would organise the bricks differently, there being no possible way to recreate my first approach.  I made up a bag of red bricks, a bag of blue bricks,a bag of barrel shaped pieces, a bags of wheels ….It took me a couple of days but gradually order was imposed on the chaos.  It still takes us a lot longer to rebuild a set since we have to look at each instruction and rake through the bags to find the right piece but at least now we are only looking in the bag of small grey bricks to find the required small brick rather than raking through the entire huge tub, a lego needle in a haystack.  The new approach is working.  We are rebuilding the Lego sets again.  Progress is being made.

I had to change my expectations, develop a new approach to problems, and accept that it is going to be a gradual and slow process.  For Lego.  For immigration.


Nessie, Haggis and Royal Babies

Today marks two years since the kids and I emigrated to America.  In some ways it seems like not that much time has passed (such as when we met up with friends in Lochgilphead in July and it felt like we had only been gone for weeks) but in many ways it feels like ages ago, not quite part of another lifetime but not far off.  For example, we bought our house just over a year ago but already it feels comfortably like home, as if we have lived in it for years.  I reread my first year immigration anniversary post and realised that a lot of what I wrote then still stands now so settling is clearly a slow and gradual process for me; but I am definitely more comfortable with things than I was this time last year.  Things that were initially unsettling, discombobulating, strange, alien and stressful have now largely settled into the rhythm and groove of everyday normality with the occasional panicked peak of being a stranger in a strange land.

From the very first, my Scottisness has been a talking point.  A week has yet to pass without people commenting on my accent, always complimentary, usually an exclamation of, “I love your accent!”  Often that is where the conversation on my accent ends but sometimes I am asked where I am from and that prompts further conversation.  Some of these can be quite peculiar.

Last Winter I fell into conversation with a chap who heard my accent and enquired if I was Irish.

Man: That’s not a Philly accent.
Me: Well spotted.
Man: My family are Irish.
Me: That’s cool. I’m not Irish though; I’m Scottish.
Man: Yeah, my grandparents came over in their 20s.
Me: Uh huh.
Man: So where in Ireland?
Me: Sorry?
Man: Where in Ireland are you from?
Me: I’m not. I’m from Scotland.
Man: Oh. It’s just that you sound a lot like Sean Connery.
Me: Sean Connery is also not Irish. He is also Scottish. Like me.
Man: Cool.

It is perplexing the number of times I have had the “I am not Irish” conversation.  I think more people guess I am Irish than guess accurately that I am a Scot.  I sometimes also get New Zealander and South African.  I think people just hear accented English and plump for an English speaking nation.  I had assumed that Americans would be much better at placing accents given there is such a diversity of accents and dialects in the various regions of the US but apparently not.

When people do know I am Scottish, all sorts of bizarre small talk can ensue.  One of my favourites was when, not long after moving to America, I was asked at the supermarket checkout, “Do you believe?”  I was desperately confused by the question.  Having had a lot of strangers ask me what religion I was since my arrival, my first thought was that I was being asked about faith.  But why would someone be asking me about religion while beeping my groceries?  I must have looked dim for long enough that the checkout lady offered a follow up, “Do you believe in the Loch Ness Monster?”  Oh!  Much easier to answer.  She looked quite crestfallen when I replied, “I believe Nessie is good for tourism”.  Did she really think I was going to reveal that I had been given a private audience with the beastie?  That was not the only time I have been asked about Nessie but it was certainly the oddest.

Haggis is another topic of conversation.  I think Britain still has a reputation for terrible food (which is unfair – you can find wonderful and wretched food wherever you are in the world) and the very notion that someone might eat the heart and lungs of a sheep all chopped up and stuffed in its bladder is barf-inducing to some and the idea that such a recipe would become a national dish is truly mystifying.  But, of course, many nation’s have a simple peasant dish to serve as their national dish.  It is just the fact that Scotland’s is a whole bunch of innards that captures the imagination I suppose.  Mostly people just want to know why.  Why?  Why would anyone eat such a thing?  Just why?  I can then take the conversation along a historic or gastronomic track.  The former involves explaining a bit about crofting practices and the economic need to use every part of an animal and the latter involves explaining that haggis is actually very tasty, thanks to the mixture of oatmeal and spices – though, of course, since I don’t eat meat I only eat vegetarian haggis.  I managed to horrify my son’s class when they thought I was going to make them eat haggis.

The expansion of the British royal family has led to two periods since my immigration in which people have asked my opinion about royal babies.  I don’t tend to have opinions about babies, whether royal or serf or anything in between.  People also tended to approach the subject obliquely and without any context so that I again found myself in a state of befuddlement.  “What do you think of the baby?”  I was asked, again at a supermarket checkout.  I asked what baby and was met with the reply, “Baby George?”  I still had nothing.  Was this some TV programme the checkout person assumed I watched.  “Prince George?”  Oh.  The penny dropped.  It’s always nice when people who want a baby have one.  That’s pretty much my sole opinion on the matter.  And, of course, it was repeated when Prince George’s little sister was born a few months ago.  I was quicker on the uptake with that conversation starter though.  I get asked about the Queen a lot too.  And Downton Abbey.  I think many people think the two are related.

The popularity of the Outlander series of books and the subsequent TV show is also something people ask me about a lot when they identify my accent.  They always look disappointed in me when I confess that I have neither read the books or seen the TV show.  Before I had ever heard of the books, I fell into conversation with an older lady in our library once because she heard my accent and wanted to know what I thought of them.  She looked downright affronted when I told her I had no idea what she was referring to.  She looked like she thought I should be stripped of my Scottish identity.  Then it emerged that some of the teachers at my sons’ Elementary School were obsessed with the books – totally obsessed – so they would ask me about all sorts of things to do with Scotland.  One asked me to email her photos I had taken of Scottish castles and was over the moon when I did so.

Ever so often, someone will hear my Scottish burr and will engage me in conversation about travel to Scotland.  It might be that they want to share their experience of visiting the country and tell me how much they loved it there, despite the weather, or it might be that they are planning a trip there and want some personal recommendations.  That’s always fun.  I think Scotland is one of the most beautiful, historically rich and culturally interesting countries in the world and I am happy to be an Ambassador – though I don’t forget to mention rain and midgies.

I welcome all of these little interactions about my Scottish accent and identity.  I like being Scottish so I am happy to chat about it.  The reaction people have is overwhelmingly positive too which is a welcoming feeling, especially at times when I might be feeling a little alien and adrift.  I am quite happy to be “different” and my difference sometimes prompts people to be very helpful and make suggestions as to places to go, things to see and do.  Indeed in the two years that I have lived in Pennsylvania, the only anti-immigration sentiment I have experienced directly was from a man, whose surname I noted was Italian, who felt it appropriate to tell me that people like me were coming over here and making the economy worse because we were stealing all of the jobs that proper Americans should have.  Sigh.

As a final note on Scottish accents in an American context, as my kids accents and vocabulary are drifting into the Mid-Atlantic, they have become much more conscious of my accent.  “You are just SO Scottish!” they proclaim.  I find that quite comforting.


Community Connections

When, in 2002, Mr Pict and I relocated from the commuter belt of London to Lochgilphead, with its population of just over 2000, one of the things I had to adjust to was everyone knowing everyone else, virtual strangers knowing things about us we had not told them, and the constant thrum of the village grapevine.  The town we had moved from was essentially a dormitory for people who worked elsewhere.  Weekdays it was all but a ghost town.  It was functional but anonymous and was completely lacking in anything approaching community.  Having had that anonymity, therefore, it was peculiar to pitch up in a place where people would encounter me in the street and announce, “Oh you must be Laura!” and then go on to tell me what things they knew about Mr Pict and me already.  Actually it was a bit perturbing.

Then, shortly after our move, I had my oldest son and I welcomed the random encounters when I took him out for a daily walk in his pram, the casual encounters that staved off isolation.  There were lots of people who, like me, had a bit of a daily routine so I soon found that I was passing the same dog walkers, the same old buddies taking a stroll down to the Co-Op, the same cyclists powering along the canal each day.  We became nodding acquaintances.  Sometimes we would stop for a chat.  It was nice.  It was friendly.

Over time, pretty much nobody in our town was a stranger.  They were people who I recognised in passing, acquaintances, casual friends and good friends.  The other thing that gradually happened is that I moved from literally knowing not a soul but my husband when we first moved there to being able to forge connections to pretty much anyone whose name was mentioned in conversation.  A name could be mentioned that I wouldn’t recognise and I would declare I did not know that individual.  I would then be informed that I did surely know them, they were X’s wife, the brother of Y, the parent of A, B and C, they worked at this place or that place…. and the penny always dropped and I always did know who they were talking about.  Six degrees of separation in action.  Sometimes the gossip could get a bit much, a bit claustrophobic and annoying, but the grapevine was usually harmless.  As I became used to forming a web of connections between everyone in the area, I found I rather liked the way it underpinned the sense of community.  It was one of the things that gave me most pause when our thoughts turned to leaving and moving to pastures new.

I will declare it: I miss the sense of community we had in Mid Argyll.

This morning, I popped into a local, independent supermarket where the staff are always chatty.  It is one of the things I enjoy about shopping there.  At the checkout, I happened to mention that I was enjoying shopping without kids now that they have returned to school.  The lady operating the till asked which school my kids attended and it turned out her grandchildren went to the same Elementary.  Furthermore, three of them were in the same grades as my three younger kids.  As soon as she named them, I realised I knew her grandchildren and their mother.  Not only had they been in the same classes as my kids but the youngest had attended preschool with my youngest.  I had also hung out with one of the adult grandchildren when accompanying second grade on a field trip as she was there with her little brother.

As I walked back to my car and packed the bags into the boot, I realised I was grinning.  Why was I grinning, I wondered.  I was grinning because, for the first time since I moved to America almost two years ago, I had been able to make a connection between a random person I had encountered and interacted with and some other people I vaguely knew.  It is nowhere near community building but it’s a start.  I am maybe beginning to map out a web that ties the people together in our area.  Maybe I know more people here than I think I do.  Maybe some day we Picts will be part of that web.

It also reminded me just how much I miss being part of a community.

Small Differences: Back to School Supplies

Goodness it has been a while since I wrote a “Small Differences” post!  I wonder if that is a sign that I am pretty well acclimatised and assimilated into everyday American life.

This morning my children all returned to school after the looooooong summer break.  We have had a lovely summer between our travel back to Britain, having guests, our History of Art project and having fun in our home environs.  However, the four boys and I have been together 24/7 for 10 weeks now.  As much as getting back into the routine will be a shock to the system, we all really need to get back into our own grooves.  My treat for my first child-free day in ages is to sit down with a hot cup of tea before running errands and doing the household chores.  Gosh, the lavishness.  As I waited for the kettle to boil, I thought about the way in which the preparations for the return to school differ on both sides of the Atlantic.  It involves a small but significant difference: school supply shopping.

In Scotland, the shopping preparation ahead of the new school year was clothes based. My kids would need outfitting in new uniforms, thankfully standard polo shirts and trousers that could be bought very affordably. The only items requiring much investment of thought and planning were the jumpers and the shoes – the former because they needed an embroidered logo so had to be ordered in advance and the latter because I had to buy them in time for school but not so soon that they were outgrown before they were required. Plus we lived 86 miles from the nearest big shops so the shopping trip was a bit of an expedition. But that was it. Just the uniform. Maybe a new backpack if the old one had been wrecked. Maybe some optional colored pencils in a pencil case.

Here in America, however, purchasing the supplies for the following year is a major endeavor and not too little an expense either.

Each year, the teachers issue a list of items that parents are expected – required – to supply. And it’s not a short list. Half a side of A4 is size 12 font for my Elementary aged kids and at least three quarters of a page for my Middle Schooler. With four kids to buy for, that’s a whole load of supplies. The items run from stationery – pencils, glue sticks, lined paper – to cleaning supplies – disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizing gel – to memory sticks and, this year, a chrome book for my oldest son, purchased through a school scheme.

What’s additionally annoying is that brand name items are requested – pretty much demanded. There’s no just doing a trolley dash around Walmart or Target and bunging in the cheapest items. No, no, no. Generic will not pass muster. For some items it makes sense: Crayola crayons lay down better pigment; anyone whose had to keep sharpening the same pencil because it’s lead constantly snaps appreciates the value of Ticinderoga pencils. But won’t store brand disinfectant wipes clean just as effectively as Clorox? Kids always leave lids off glue sticks so they dry out just as quickly if they are generic as they do if they are Elmer’s. But I submit and conform and fall in line as I don’t want my kids to be the one in the class handing in boxes of no brand tissues. Except my 7th grader can have reinforced cardboard folders with envelope pockets because the plastic ones are double the price. That’s my rebellion.

With four kids, the price of this stuff soon stacks up too. Last year I actually went to the bother of doing price comparisons. This year I decided that my time has a value too so no price comparisons and no visiting multiple shops. Instead I ordered the required box of goodies from the Elementary for the three younger kids. It might cost me a few dollars more but it saves me time, effort and not having to carry all that stuff to school on the first day.

The reason why I have to provide all of these items is the real bug bear though: schools are too underfunded to provide the necessary items from their own budgets. They, therefore, rely on parents to provide essential items of stationery. Ours is a good school district that’s funded better than many in the area but still I’m providing basic items like lined paper so my oldest can do written work and whiteboard markers for the teacher to actually write with.  If parents didn’t provide these items, likely the teachers would dip into their own salaries to purchase them. That’s something I did in my own teaching career but for items over and above the essentials. I would buy prizes for my students or extra little bits and bobs to make a wall display more visually appealing. At no point was I having to reach into my own purse for pens or pencils or paper for my students.

Chronic underfunding of education here, however, means that special, “treat” items come from fund raising – which is so near constant that I wish I could just hand over a lump some up front to not be perpetually hassled for money – and many essential items are donated by parents. And if it’s like this in our school district then materials must be thin on the ground in school districts working with very Spartan budgets, such as in Philly itself.

So it was a bit of a culture shock to be faced with shopping lists for school each year and I do feel hassled and peeved by it to an extent but I would rather the money be spent on teaching than on pencils. It’s just shocking to me that such decisions should even have to be made.

Things I Miss

Today marks exactly 18 months since the kids and I emigrated from Scotland to America.  My husband asked me the other day if seeing friends from back home had made me feel homesick.  My answer was no but it was no because I am really never not homesick.  I am still very much in that transitional stage of feeling uprooted and not yet entirely settled where I have chosen to be planted.  It is not as if the homesickness is unbearable and it is not that I do not want to be here in America but the pangs are still there.  After a mere 18 months, I don’t think that is unreasonable.

I miss people the most, of course.  But I also miss places and things.  Here are some of the things I miss, in no particular order.

The National Health Service.  I cannot claim that the NHS is a perfect system.  The way it is managed and administered has room for improvement, particularly in recent years.  However, on this list of the things I miss most about Britain, the NHS was at the forefront of my mind.  Medical care and treatment that is free at the point of need is not merely an admirable principle; access to medical care also ensures that people are healthy, that they seek help for a condition while it is acute rather than when it has developed into a chronic condition that is more complex (and expensive) to treat.  Shelling out wodges of money every month to pay for medical insurance here in America does not fund a better functioning system.  It is no more easy for me to obtain an appointment with a family doctor.  At our doctor’s surgery, appointments can only be booked up to three days ahead.  What that means is that almost every time I phone to make an appointment, I am told that there are no available appointments and I should call back and try again on X day.  Luckily we have not needed an appointment for anything urgent so far.  In fact, the only reason four of us are registered with a doctor at all is because we had to have medicals for our driving licenses and starting new schools.  Two of my sons have not been registered because they had not needed appointments.  Until now.  The school district phoned to remind me that they are not registered with a doctor and now need professional medicals for their school records.  I have been trying to make an out-of-school-hours appointment for them for over a month without success.  This is a medical service we are paying money for.  People complain about the frustrating length of NHS waiting lists but one of my children is on a 12-14 month waiting list for a particular medical service.  Again, we pay through the nose for this.  Furthermore, the expense of medical co-pays (as insurance only pays a percentage of the costs) holds people back from visiting medical professionals.  Our co-pay is pretty minimal yet I know that even I have held off going to see a doctor for something that back home in Britain I might have gone to the doctor for.  Knowing I will incur a cost, I instead choose to ride it out.  Multiplying that over the entire American population, particularly people with higher co-pay or who have no medical insurance at all, and that is a whole lot of people choosing to ride out being unwell instead of seeking help and treatment.  The system does not function.  I miss the NHS.

Walking everywhere.  British streets have pavements (sidewalks) and that enables people to be pedestrians rather than drivers.  Where we last lived in Scotland, we could walk everywhere we needed to get to for everyday life: we walked to school, to the supermarket and other shops, to the hospital and dental surgery, to the community centre.  And we could do so safely because we had pavements.  I really miss that.  We are lucky here in the Philly suburbs to live in a neighbourhood that has sidewalks so we can safely walk to school and back and my kids can play out on the street.  However, to get just about any place else necessitates hopping in the car.  We have to drive just to get somewhere to go for a walk.  Isn’t that silly?  The supermarket is walking distance (about 40 minutes each way) but there is no safe way to walk there alongside a busy road so I go by car.  I could walk to the nearest mall but again there is absolutely no safe way to walk there.  During the last snow storm, my kids had a dental appointment before the roads had been cleared.  The dental surgery is about a half hour walk each way so that was do-able except that there was no safe way to walk half of the journey and no safe place to cross one of the roads.  In the end, the dental surgery closed its doors early and our appointments were rescheduled but it was frustrating that the option to get there on foot did not exist.

Bradan Rost salmon.  I love hot smoked salmon.  I don’t like the wibbly, flibbliness of cold smoked or cured salmon, the stuff that looks like piscine skin grafts.  Instead this kiln-roasted salmon is succulent and punchy with delectable smokey flavour.  Since we lived on Loch Fyne, I could just nip along the road ever so often and buy a very affordable pack of the off-cuts from Loch Fyne Oysters.  Or several packs.  We bought whole sides for special occasions but the off-cuts were perfect for shoving on a crusty bread roll with a squeeze of lemon.  I might shortcut my computer by drooling on it just at the thought of that salmon.  Here in Pennsylvania, a source of hot smoked salmon has so far eluded me.  In fact, I think I may only have bought salmon twice in the whole 18 months I have been here because fish generally is somewhat pricey.

Ruins.  Where we lived in Scotland, there were ruins galore.  It was always fun to take the kids to play among the ruins.  They would play knights and dragons in the towers of a Medieval castle.  Another castle might be transformed into Hogwarts and they would cast spells at each other in the courtyard.  The dungeons and cellars would become the lairs of mythical beasts.  A village of ruined crofts was, to my kids, the best playground ever.  They could play make-believe within the buildings, make magic potions inside the old pots or water troughs, as well as climb the walls and play hide and seek.

Decent news broadcasting.  I admit to being a bit of a news snob but what I want from my news is quality reporting of facts, as unbiased and bipartisan as possible, with high caliber analysis from someone who really does know their onions.  Not too much to ask, right?  My go-to news broadcasting in Britain was either BBC Radio 4 or BBC TV news.  Here in the US, I have defaulted to still watching BBC News on the telly.  It is actually the only telly channel for which I know the number (171!).  The “problem” with the BBC here, of course, is that its remit is to cover global stories which means lots of quantity in terms of stories but no time for really in-depth coverage or analysis of one particular story.  Trying to follow the Scottish referendum, for instance, was patchy so I resorted to the BBC website.  The same is proving true of the UK national election.  But still the BBC is my default position.  I find I just cannot tolerate American news broadcasting for very long in any stretch.  It is not that it is all “bad” as such but it is not the approach to journalism that I am used to and that I, therefore, want.  The reporting tends to approach a story from a particular angle or agenda which often means being fed a particular opinion rather than facts for the viewers to interpret for themselves.  Even when the agenda is more attuned to my own politics, it is not something I want from the news.  Worse is the news broadcasting where someone sits behind a desk and just rants and raves about their particular perspective on a subject.  Worse still is when that same format is applied to a group situation, where serried talking heads banter back and forth as if the camera caught them in mid conversation instead of actually delivering information, you know, like basic facts, that the viewer can consume.  Instead it is all just opinionated, biased punditry, people arguing back and forth often over the top of one another, and often appears ill-informed.  It reminds me of watching people in the pub arguing over current affairs.  No thanks.  Back to channel 171 I go.

Fish and chips.  I think I miss fish and chips.  What I certainly miss is the smell of searingly hot fish and chips just lifted from the fry basket and wrapped in paper, the intoxicating aroma of malt vinegar heady in the air.  So maybe I just miss hot malt vinegar.  I have many fond memories of eating chip shop chips (by which I mean fluffy steak fries) to warm up on a cold day out exploring somewhere, perhaps sat in the car, the windscreen getting steamy from the food, looking over a choppy sea under a slate grey sky.  Chippy chips are evocative.  Growing up on the east coast of Scotland, we would also douse our chips in chippy sauce which was like a brown sauce cut further with vinegar, liquid and pungent.  There goes my drool again.

School Dinners.  Back home in Scotland, it was rare for my kids to not eat a school dinner.  That was great for me because I didn’t have to endure the early morning chore of making packed lunches.  Their school became the subject of a bit of controversy regarding school dinners when one of their peers started a blog about the small portions offered which led to a whole discussion about what children were being fed at school.  My kids personally never had any complaints about portion sizes and I was happy for them to eat school dinners there because the food was cooked from scratch, nutritious and – so far as they reported to me anyway – tasty.  And it meant I didn’t have to make packed lunches.  Here, quite frankly, the school dinners on offer are junk.  My Middle Schooler has a school dinner every day because he manages that better practically and logistically in the mere minutes they are granted for lunch.  I accept that he is eating healthy, balanced, cooked from scratch meals at home so a small portion of junk in the middle of the day counts as moderation.  And it saves me making one packed lunch.  Of my three Elementary School aged kids, however, one has a school dinner once a week on average (when pancakes are on the menu) and the other two have never had a school dinner.  That is disappointing not merely because it means I have to make packed lunches but because we all know there are some kids for whom a school dinner represents their one hot meal a day, maybe even their only meal that day, and yet what they are being fed is junk.  I don’t think that is acceptable.  On a personal level, it means I have to make packed lunches.  You may be detecting the fact that this is a chore I do not enjoy.  First thing in the morning – even before I have had my mug of tea to start balancing me out – I have to do production line packed lunch manufacturing and it is more of a chore than you might think when you have kids who change their minds about what they will and will not eat on a daily basis – because nothing is more annoying than spending time making packed lunches just to scrape most of it into the bin on their return from school.  I see elaborate kiddie packed lunches from time to time on Pinterest – sandwiches shaped like Picasso portraits, bento boxes containing sushi in the shape of panda faces – but no matter what lengths I went to in order to be arty, creative and elaborate with their lunches, they would probably still leave half of it.  So mundane it is.  Which makes my kids miss Scottish school dinners too.

Alcohol in supermarkets.  Random one this and it is not a big deal but it does annoy me that I have to go to the liquor store to buy wine or the beer store to buy beer.  Grocery shopping is hassle enough without making runs to different locations.  I just want a bottle of wine to drink each week and wine and beer to cook with.  It’s aggravating to want to cook root veggies in mustard and lager or to need wine for a particular recipe and then have to go to two separate stores to buy all the ingredients.  I can’t imagine it bothers people with a drink problem so I am not sure the policy works.  It just harasses busy people.

Light summer nights.  In Scotland, sunset varies considerably depending upon the season.  In Summer, sunset can be as late as 10pm which – with sunrise at 5am – provides long days of daylight.  Those long summer nights are lovely and make up for the dark winter days where all we seem to do is go from darkness to twilight to dusk and back to darkness again.  With sunrises as late as 9am and sunsets as early as 4pm, the winters leave us deprived of sunlight.  The long summer days are our reward for getting through those dark days.  Overall, I possibly prefer the stability of light levels here in Pennsylvania – and I certainly enjoy the blue skies in winter – but I wish I could somehow ditch those short winter days but keep the long summer evenings.

The language.  I miss Scots and I miss patter – that mixture of Scots vernacular vocabulary, with all its specificity, sardonic wit and pithy humour.  I miss bantering with people who understand absolutely every word I say.  I miss language coming easily to me, not having to fumble around my brain in search of the word people will understand.  The flipside of this, however, is that I am rather glad to find that my accent and intonation has not altered in the least, that my gob is as Scottish as ever.  Except for “awesome”.  I have started using that word.

Toilet cubicles.  Obviously it is not that toilet cubicles don’t exist here, of course.  That would be silly.  That would be like some European nations I could mention but won’t.  What I miss is properly private toilet cubicles, ones whose doors entirely fit the frames.  Here, most cubicles in public toilets have considerable gaps around the door which leaves one feeling rather exposed.  Dealing with the whole hygiene aspect of public toilets is challenge enough without having to also keep an eye on the door frame and be as covered up and discreet as possible in case someone does choose to peek in.  Because that happens.  Instead of looking for signs of occupation, instead of perhaps gently pushing on the door with a finger tip to see if the cubicle is in fact vacant, there are people who just look through the door crack to see if there is somebody in there.  It’s excruciatingly awful.  When queuing up in line in the ladies’ room – often inevitable for women – one also has to be mindful of keeping one’s eyes on either the floor or the ceiling in order to avoid inadvertently seeing someone going about their business.  I hate public restrooms as it is, avoid them entirely if at all possible, so the lack of privacy definitely escalates my phobia of them.

But there are also things I don’t miss.

Distance to the city.  Where we lived in Argyll was 90 miles or at least 2 hours drive from Glasgow, our closest city.  There were towns closer but not big enough to provide us with all of the things we might need on any given shopping expedition.  If my kids destroyed their school shoes (which happened with annoying regularity) then we could either travel north to Oban and hope the small shoe shop there had the right style in the right size or we could travel to Glasgow in order to have access to multiple, larger shoe shops.  We would keep a running list of things we needed from the big smoke and would spend a long day in the city ensuring that we bought every item on that list any time we needed to go into the city.  A cinema reopened in Oban in the last year of us living in Argyll but otherwise we had to travel into the city to see a film in the cinema.  Museums, art galleries and theatres also necessitated a day trip to Glasgow.  Worse, because I was not low-risk enough to give birth at our local midwife-led unit, I had to travel into the city to deliver my babies.  I once did 90 miles along crinkly roads strapped down in the back of an ambulance.  Severe travel sickness and contractions are not a pleasant combination.  The experience was not much better seated in a car.  And each time I was hospitalised, I was too far from home for my children to come and visit me.  Now, the same time in a car that could get us to Glasgow can get us to Baltimore in one direction and New York City in the other and all those places in between.  If we want to go to a cinema, it’s a 15 minute drive.  When my 9 year old recently destroyed his school shoes – and he had hobo toes so it was urgent – I was able to nip to the mall and buy him new shoes in no time.  We can access all the amenities and culture of a major city in a 40 minute drive.

Television.  I do not miss British TV at all.  The British shows I followed get imported to the US anyway, broadcast on channels such as BBC America or PBS or – if I wait a bit longer – Netflix.  The only show I can think of that I miss and cannot view here in the States is the original UK version of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’  That’s it.  Granted a lot of the TV we watched back home in Britain was American anyway but overall what has happened is that I just watch a lot less television.  We have a different schedule to our day as a family here, are busy with different things, so we just don’t sit down to watch telly as often as we did back home.  It’s probably the weather too: we were more inclined to watch television during the day on grey, rainy days.  Now my TV viewing is much more discerning, more focused, because I do less of it.  That’s a good thing I think.  What I do miss is the operating system.  We had Sky+ back in Argyll and the functionality of that was much more sophisticated than the streaming, on demand and recording services we have here.  I find myself frequently frustrated by how clunky the system is here.

The weather.  I do not miss the climate on the west coast of Scotland.  I recall my first winter in Argyll and wondering how on earth I was going to get through it.  Here in Pennsylvania we have experienced hard winters because of the snow and ice but I would still take that over the incessant, lashing, cold rain.  It rains in every single season on the west coast of Scotland.  My kids regularly walked to school in wellies and waterproofs.  We could set out on walks in glorious sunshine and suddenly rainstorms would roll up the loch and unload a deluge on us that left us soaked to the skin.  We packed layers to handle every possibility not just for day trips but even for local excursions.  The weather was so unreliable and the forecasting so inaccurate for where we lived that it was necessary to be a pack mule and carry both sunscreen and wellies, sun hats and rain jackets.  Then, in the summer, when we might be blessed with some warm and sunny days, the midges would appear.  Midges are small, biting insects native to the north-west of Scotland who delight in travelling in clouds and feasting upon people.  They are horrible.  Completely awful.  Not only do I not miss them but I am very much glad to see the back of them.

So that – quickly and off the top of my head – is the ying and the yang of what I miss about home 18 months in to life in America.  I wonder if I will miss those things more or less when I reach two years.


My First Tastykake

In the seventeen months since I landed on American shores, I have experienced a good few edible firsts.  There was my first munch of the legendary Girl Scout cookies, watching my kids eat Twinkies for the first (and last) time even though I think they are whipped bile, eating food from Wendy’s for the first (and last) time – all of which were entirely disappointing to my tastebuds.  On the upside, I had fun watching my kids review their Halloween candy, get to make delicious green bean casserole for Thanksgiving, have access to great diners and after over a decade’s absence from my palate I ate a whole pile of fried green tomatoes when we were in Florida in December.  Yesterday, I had another munching milestone: I tried a Tastykake donut.  Spelled “donut” rather than “doughnut”.

I actually had no awareness of Tastykake as a brand, none whatsoever, until a little over a week ago.  One of my sisters asked me if I had tried Tastykakes.  Blank.  Turns out they are a Philadelphia company who have been selling baked confections since 1914.  Over a century of flogging sugary wares and I had no idea they existed until last week.  So a bag of snack-sized Tastykake donuts was purchased and was designated as dessert last night.

So did the mini chocolate donut tickle my tastebuds and join the ranks of American foods that make me drool or did it add to my list of edible disappointments?

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I am sorry to report that the Tastykake was neither a cake nor was it tasty.  It was in the disappointing corner and I did not even have high expectations.  The cake – or kake – was dense and too chewy and the chocolate covering was not sweet or smooth enough to elevate it’s substrate.  In fairness, my mouth has not acclimated to American chocolate but this chocolate coating was definitely at the waxier end.  As disloyal as it may be to my  new locale, I cannot, therefore, see myself consuming any more Tastykake baked goods in the future.  Sorry.