Saturday 21 February 2009

Manahatta to Albion

One characteristic of my life that's changed since moving here is that I listen to an awful lot of radio. My routine in New York was to switch on the tube and NY1 first thing in the morning, just to take the temperature of the world before venturing out into it; and while I do miss that particular ritual (and Pat, Roma, Kristen et al), I have since established a new one: waking with BBC Radio 4 and, later, turning over to the World Service. It's a ritual I share with millions of people all over the globe, the "men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them," as George V said in the first Royal Christmas Message in 1932. I think it is a certain sense of being castaway that sums up living abroad to me, at least sometimes, and makes me grateful for the calm, dependable presence of the BBC.

Radio 4 had a program on Monday, Island Dreams, that examined how "the idea of the island" captures the British imagination. From Lord of the Flies to "Desert Island Discs," the island as metaphor figures prominently. It's part of our psyche as an island nation, the presenter proposed, this fascination with being cut off, alone, stalwart. It's a fascination I happen to share—it's funny that I've essentially just hopped from one island (Manhattan) to another (British).

Before I moved here permanently, I spent a week one August on the island of Eigg, in the Inner Hebrides, with my husband to be. We rented a television-less former croft and spent our days hiking around the cliffs and moors. In the evenings we'd come back, exhausted, and cook our supper in the small kitchen, looking out the window over the sink toward the sea, and we'd listen to the news, and the Book of the Day, and finally the shipping forecast. We were utterly, blissfully alone, my fiancé and I, seeing almost no one else that week, save the sheep and cows; the radio kept us tethered to civilization, just enough.

When I returned to New York after that week I kept up with Radio 4 on the Internet for a while, before sliding back into my city ways: too much television, too much everything. It was that trip that convinced me I was ready to leave Manhattan, and so I proposed that it was I who should move to Scotland, not he to New York. Within the year we were settled.

It is, by the way, my goal to visit every single one of the Hebrides some day.

Photo © Robin Gillett

Monday 9 February 2009

Biometrically yours

It seems I'm not the only one who's been having trouble with the Identity Card for Foreign Nationals. After splashing out for "premium service" so I wouldn't have to mail in my passport, I still had to send the damn thing to Bristol because of an error on the card they sent me. Fortunately—due to the media coverage, I'm wondering?—my passport was returned safely within the week, and this with all of England practically shut down from the snow. "We haven't had snow like this in 18 years! You can't expect us to remember how to use plows!"

At least the UK Border Agency had the manners to include with my passport an almost apologetic letter: "We are currently investigating how your nationality was entered incorrectly onto your card, so that we can take steps to ensure this does not happen again." Given the threat in earlier correspondence that the onus was on me to correct any mistakes, on punishment of paying another 600 pounds, this was groveling. Anyway, it is extremely comforting to have my well-traveled little passport back at home. The old girl certainly gets around.

Still, I have to keep my complaints to a minimum: This weekend I read, in one spellbound sitting, Mende Nazer's memoir, Slave. Check it out if you can, it's amazing. I read a good part of it aloud to my husband at the kitchen table (a pastime I highly recommend—it's like homemade radio). We were enrapt. Afterwards, to my husband's visible relief, I vowed to quit—well, tone down—my bitching in re: my own petty complaints about being an expat; it's not as if I'm seeking asylum. Perspective is always a handy thing to have. Also, a passport.

Photo © Robin Gillett