Like all the best immigrant-made- good stories, I can confirm that I had £90 and a cheese submarine sandwich from The Italian Kitchen deli in my pocket.
28 years ago today, I arrived in this country for the first time. Correction: I arrived in any country for the first time. I was 21 years old and had never been outside my native USA. Correction again: I had never been anywhere beyond the East Coast of my native USA. January 15, 1984.
Hours earlier I had left my two roommates in a cockroach-infested basement apartment on the outskirts of Trenton New Jersey. All three of us were penniless students at the local college, living on fried baloney sandwiches and sleeping on mattresses on the floor. We would take our clothes into the shower and wash them as we cleaned ourselves. The ceiling above the shower had collapsed some months prior, in keeping with the general lack of maintenance in the apartment block. Always one to make an opportunity of a crisis, we used the hole to speak easily with our upstairs neighbour; Winnie. She was a single mother with two beautifully well-mannered kids. For what little we had, Winnie and the kids had even less. We would share our clothing, food and music with them through the opportune hatch in the shower ceiling.
The hours leading up my departure for the airport had been spent partying. It was our way and certainly my trip across the pond to undertake a three-month stint as an exchange student was not a necessary pre-requisite for a party. Even as I lugged my duffel bag to the door I remember my roommates putting on my favourite album of the time. The songs still instantly transport me to that time.
I remember little of the flight itself other than the smell of the marinating onions and good quality olive oil used by the Italian Kitchen deli wafting through the economy class seats.
My first glance of what would be my adopted country was the green patchwork farms of Sussex from the window of the airplane. It was mid-winter and the sight of green grass surprised me. In the airport at Gatwick, I remember the yellow signage pointing out the taxis and trains were alien and distinctly European.
I caught the train to Victoria station in London. As I waited for the staff from the college I would be attending to meet us, I quickly stepped outside and onto Buckingham Palace Road for my first glimpse of London. But that has already been covered in a previous blog.
The staff drove us on a lightning tour of the London sites. Big Ben (St Stephen’s Tower) was in scaffolding being cleaned and repaired. I had no premonition that these streets would become my home, my neighbourhood in the years to come. I was 21. My wife had just turned 14 years old a week prior! I knew no one in the country other than those in the car.
We stopped at a pub called The Stick and Weasel in City Road. Years later I stumbled upon the same pub by chance. On January 15, 1984 I ordered a gin as I thought that was the British thing to do (I had seen the movies), but the mini bus driver advised me that men tended to order beer in pubs.
And so we left London that gray and damp January day for the long drive north to Lincolnshire, where I would be based until the Spring.
28 years later, I am proud of the life I have made. I have a wonderfully close family and many friends. I cannot walk down the streets of this London neighbourhood, in the shadow of St Stephen’s Tower without bumping into someone I know. My wife (now of a riper age) and my children are also well-known to all. I have become a Londoner.
I remind my wife of today’s date and its relevance in our family history. She shrugs indifferently. There is little time for sentimentally when one is a Londoner; you just get on with it.
But I need to mark the occasion.
I put on the old song that played as I exited the cockroach-infested apartment, Winnie and the kids waving from the window.
Oh…I’m living in the future.
I feel wonderful.
I’m tipping over backwards
I’m so ambitious
I’m looking back
I’m running a race and you’re the book I read
Keep the Faith,