Saturday 14 February 2015

Return to the USA

Had you asked me a month ago if I had any intentions of ever settling in the USA, my answer would have been an annoying scoff and a resounding rejection of the idea. But that was before I went back. It’s a shock, returning to a place that resonates within me as one of the happiest periods of my childhood. The wide streets, the big supermarkets, the sense of hope and achievement that seems to permeate through everyone on the street. I had forgotten just how enjoyable and inspiring that is.

I flew Spirit airlines to Chicago, and they have the impressive distinction of making EasyJet seem generous with what’s included. I mean, seriously, the seats don’t even recline. Then again, who else will fly you from Colombia to Chicago without leaving you weeping at your credit card bill? So, I sucked it up and landed without incident at Fort Lauderdale in Florida ready for immigration. It took almost an hour to reach the desk, and I was prepared for a barrage of questions and a miserable and/or hostile experience as I headed up to the officer and handed over my arrival card and passport.

“Good evening, you’re coming from…” he started, looking down at the paper where I had managed to squeeze 8 country names into the space provided. “…woah, everywhere! Sweet!”

I blinked a couple of times and nodded a dumbfounded assent as he started to flick through my passport.

“That’s awesome! Are you travelling? Wow, look at all these stamps!”

Chuffed but pleased, I gave a brief overview of my trip so far and where I was heading next. Cheerfully, he offered to squeeze my American entrance stamp next to the Chinese ones from last year, insisting I clearly needed the space in the later pages for my future adventures. It was the first time any immigration officer has been so thoughtful and welcoming, and I felt very guilty about how critical of them I’ve been in the past.

Then I hit customs.

Not going to lie, they seem to have been encouraged to make you feel uncomfortable. The poor woman next to me was attacked as soon as she arrived by her officer, him demanding why she seemed so nervous. My guy quizzed me for a couple of minutes before casually flicking my passport back at me with a look of disdain. Still, I felt better after experiencing the American kindness and friendliness towards strangers (another aspect of life I had unknowingly missed and is sadly lacking in the UK) when a friendly local guided me to the train in Chicago and saved me at least $50 in taxi fair and provided friendly conversation en route.

After a brief weekend freezing in Chicago, made infinitely better by meeting up with Sharareh again, it was onto a Megabus down to St Louis. There, for reasons intentionally left blank from this blog, I ended up in hospital. I swear I should rename this blog to the hospital tour of the world, for my body seems intent on insisting I visit a hospital on every continent. While there, I was treated to one of the less impressive sides of American life: pure ignorance. They were checking for Ebola symptoms as I walked in, and the girl on the desk asked me if I’d been out of the country in the past 21 days.

“Yes, in the past 3 weeks I’ve been in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.”

A blank look manifested itself, and she started to peer at the Ebola warning poster on the desk in front of me, to her upside down.

“Hmm, are those on the list…?”

“They’re not in West Africa”

“Oh, that’s good. I’m a Missouri girl you know?”

No, not really. 

I was a bit surprised, she was a trained nurse and clearly not stupid. Still, she made up for the lack of geographical knowledge by being professional, friendly and helpful. And let me put this into writing now: there is nothing like a 9 hour wait in an American hospital to renew your faith in the NHS. I don’t care what you say, I have never waited more than 3 hours to be seen in the UK, no matter how trivial the injury, and never bothered with concerns of how to pay.

Then again, on the contrary, I would like to say on record that the nurses, doctors and medical students at the Barnes-Jewish hospital in St Louis were some of the friendliest, most professional and kind medical staff I have ever had the pleasure of being treated by.

St Louis life is wonderful. The supermarkets are well stocked, the Arch stands proudly as the Gateway to the West, gleaming in the sunshine, it snows romantically one day and warms you with crisp clear days the next, and it has giant sports bars filled with infectiously excited and boisterous fans. What more could you want?

God I miss North America, and now if you ask me if I could move back? I’d ask where to sign.

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