Boarding the plane in London at the tender age of 23 and taking my seat in the business class (one of the perks provided as a part of the relocation package attached to my husband’s new job), I remember thinking in utter delight that this was the single most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.
No more inner-city teaching in London, no more expensive grocery trips, no more mortgage payments on a tiny 800-square-foot, two-bedroom house and no more ludicrous petrol costs to take into account every month. I couldn’t quite believe my luck!
To my knowledge, the contract to work in America was only for a year, so when my husband leaned in slowly and whispered upon take off, “Actually, it may be more like two,” I thought it was the most romantic thing I had ever heard. I remember a sense of relief spreading throughout my body as I sipped on a glass of bubbly while Heathrow Airport disappeared slowly beneath us.
I never thought twice about leaving everyone and everything behind. I was 23 for goodness' sake. A year or two in a different country with the luxury of experiencing new places and meeting new people was an amazing opportunity, and on top of that it was Chicago. How different could it really be? It wasn’t like I had to start learning another language or to get my head around a completely different culture.
A couple of weeks later, when I walked into an Ace Hardware store and asked where I could find small bins to go under the kitchen work surface, I began to realize how wrong I had been.
It didn’t take long for me to work out that almost everything I said was different. Pavements were sidewalks; jumpers were sweaters; trousers were pants, and pants were underwear. Fringes were referred to as bangs, bonnets and boots were alien speak for hoods and trunks; even milk caused confusion. Semi skimmed meant as much to the Americans as 2 percent meant to me!
Ordering food was another ordeal. Who would have known that chips, crisps and fries could cause so many problems? Courgettes, aubergines and coriander were apparently non-existent, until I discovered Americans called them zucchini, eggplant and cilantro. And trying to find fromage frais yoghurts was an impossible task that I stubbornly refused to give up on for many years.
I simply hadn’t expected life to be so different, never once even considering the possibility that I might not be able to make myself understood. Yet while frustrating at times, this unforeseen feature of my brand new adventure still served to be a million times more exciting than the existence I had left far behind in England.
Every day seemed to provide new challenges in unfamiliar situations and even though I did my best to take it all in stride, what I was least prepared for -- and perhaps ill-equipped to handle -- was the way Americans would treat me.
It took me a little while to realize it, but I was different. My naturally red hair (or titian, as my mother has always liked to call it), my pale skin and my freckles stood out a mile, but more than that was the fact that I sounded so different compared to everyone else.
Everyone commented on it: The lady at the post office, who stamped my letters to England on a daily basis (this was 1998, well before email and texting became commonplace); the woman at Jewel-Osco, who had no idea what I was talking about when I inquired after orange squash and Marmite; our apartment landlord, who stopped by almost daily just to ask me to say certain words so that he could marvel at my pronunciation and tell me I looked just like Princess Diana. (For the record, I look nothing like her but slowly I started to realize that in this country I had something people couldn’t get enough of.)
Admittedly, there were times I felt a little like one of the monkeys at Lincoln Park Zoo, being observed, studied and occasionally even poked. I could see I often confused people, and probably unnerved them, too, but one thing was without question; they liked me. Perhaps I appeared to them like a character from a book or a film. In more recent years, I have been "recognized" several times over as somebody famous (I’m definitely not).
While I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why, for some reason the Americans genuinely seemed interested, almost fascinated, in talking to me. It was a feeling I really enjoyed. Never in my life had I met such a friendly and welcoming group of people and within no time at all, I found myself hoping the next 23 months would go as slowly as possible.
I'd fallen madly, passionately and deeply in love with Chicago -- and later, Plainfield -- and as it turned out, it's become my home. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that 15 years and three children later, I’d still be lucky enough to still live here!