Home again?

We were met in Los Angeles by my cousin. I was met by “deja-vu”: the bus pulled in and let us out behind the train station, where I had once gone with my family as a little girl, for my brothers’ and my first train ride. Children remember the most unexpected things. As soon as I walked through the doors into the grand hall of this fabulous Art Deco station, I had an instant vision of a five-year old little girl, dressed in a red coat and matching red felt hat, sitting with her family in a restaurant whose big glass windows looked out on the highest ceiling she had ever seen with people scurrying in all directions, staring in amazement at the steaming cup of hot chocolate with a mountain of whipped cream and the hot cinnamon roll, topped by melted butter on a thick beige “cafe plate” set before her. A fork and knife were nicely laid out on a cloth napkin to one side. It was all new. It was all wonderful. Every little detail of that adventure returned to my mind, fresh as the day it had occurred. That magical moment for me had remained in the back of my mind, and had found its way back to me only then, as if to say: “Nothing has changed at all.” My years growing up, my travel to France and later to Mexico to marry and raise a family, the joys and heartbreaks of half a lifetime, seemed to be wiped away by this memory, as if something deep inside were telling me: “It’s OK now. You’re back where you belong.” I had, indeed, made full circle. After hugs all around, my cousin whisked this bedraggled group of bewildered travelers off to his waiting Cadillac and then to his house in Glendale, no more than a few blocks from the hospital where I had been born! We were “home”, but if anyone needed a decompression chamber to return to normalcy it was I. I had traveled to other countries, and been met with enough unexpected challenges in my life to be able to handle anything that came my way – I thought! Here I was at the end of a journey, and should have felt safe and relaxed. Instead, I felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under me. I didn’t “feel” American. All too easy for me to understand the bewildered, lost look on the faces of the growing number of immigrants from more humble origins who come to live in America. In the following months, my cousin would proceed to “re-Americanize” me, despite my reluctance to go out into this – inexplicably for me, given my origins – strange new world! The first thing I noticed is that there were no people. Indeed, the streets were bare of this life form and I couldn’t understand where everyone had gone. In Mexico, when you step out the door, you are “in people”. The streets are full of them coming and going, stopping to chat or exchange news. The sidewalk cafes are full of them at all hours of the day and night, and the stores, banks, churches, arcades of the government palaces, parks and plazas – you name it! – are full of them. It’s a very social place. As my cousin took us to all the required places in my re-Americanization process, I did my best to discover people along the way. The only ones I saw were in cars – backing out of driveways, going back and forth to town and racing madly along the many freeways that crisscrossed the area. One day after driving us all around town to get social security numbers for the kids, register them in school, catch up with their vaccinations, open my first ever bank account, apply for my first ever driving permit, sign up at the Social Services Department for welfare to help us get started (remember my savings never made it across the border), and pick up maps at AAA, my cousin said: “Let’s go get something to eat before we go home.” Straight ahead was a huge building, several city blocks square, with an interesting architecture but no windows. My cousin pulled into an opening to one side and down we went, three dimly-lit floors to find a place to park.. Aha! An underground parking lot. Across a dark, lonely passage between countless lines of parked cars, to find an elevator, and up we went. We were going to “The Mall”. What was my surprise when the doors finally opened to an impressively large open space, bright with skylights, when I saw – people! There they were. Hundreds of them – young families hanging on to restless children tugging at their arms or running to catch the “one that got away”, teen-agers gathered in front of the shops, bags of sundry sizes and colors hanging from their arms as they laughed, oohed, and aahed while sharing their “finds”, elderly gentlemen sitting silently in comfortable armchairs, waiting apparently for “Mom” to finish her shopping. Every inch of walking space was covered with people coming and going between the shops. So that’s where people go, I thought. Novel idea to meet under a big roof with the sole intention of buying their little hearts out. This was a first insight into a different America than the one I had known while growing up. It became obvious to me that social life in America was very much dependent on buying. I tested this out, hoping that other more cultural pursuits were harboring life, but inevitably I found the parks nearly empty, the playgrounds with only a few children, the library all too vacant, and even an occasional concert sadly lacking in attendance. My apologies to those who were living in more culturally/socially-inclined American cities. Remember this was my first impression of the States after living half a lifetime in cultures where people are everywhere to be seen. At least in Glendale, they were not. The kids assimilated well into their new schools, I began my search for work, and we spent the first few months enjoying “family” dinners with my cousin and his wife, chatting and watching movies at home in the evenings. I was starting to feel more confident, except for one thing – driving! I was 40 years old and had never driven before. This of course, needed fixing. You can’t live in California without knowing how to drive if you expect to live a normal life. So my cousin took me out several times a week in his little Volkswagen to learn. He was a good teacher. I did well as long as he was in the car and soon learned to get around in town and on the freeways with confidence. Learn to drive in Los Angeles, and you can drive anywhere! Then one day, he handed me the keys and said: “Go drive. You don’t need me now. It’s time for the bird to fly.” I was petrified! Alone? All by myself? But I did it. At 40, I learned to drive. I’m not the typical Californian. I am still “discovering” America, and I remain a “round peg in a square hole”. I guess I AM home.

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