Summertime temperatures rise above 100 degrees in some parts, but not in June in San Francisco. In San Francisco the thick fog swirls up and down the windy streets, gray mist clings to early-morning eyelashes and to painted doors of old Victorians. The cable cars clang their way up the steep inclines above Fisherman’s Wharf, and if we listen closely we can hear the cruise ships sail into the Bay underneath the Golden Gate, their foghorns blaring through the cool morning air.
Our first summer in San Francisco.
Eighteen years ago.
We arrived on a typically foggy day in June – June 9 – although perhaps by the time we cleared customs and claimed our luggage the California sun had already chased away the fog, except for a few wispy clouds clinging stubbornly to the San Bruno hills. How amazing to know the great Pacific thrashed wildly, just beyond those hills. Half a world from where we had come. An L1/L2 visa, one suitcase and a backpack each. We always travel light. Even for this trip that would last the rest of our lives.
The details of that first day in our new home, exactly 18 years ago, are shrouded in a faint fog of lapsed memory, overwhelming emotions, and the self-absorbed obliviousness of the very young. I was 24 years and three weeks on that first day of the rest of our lives, and besides my almost-as-young husband (he was 25… at least one of us could rent a car!), I brought with me from South Africa no awareness whatsoever of real life in the United States. Everything I knew about America I learned from “Dallas.” Now it was 1998. It had been a long time since anyone cared who shot JR.
I don’t remember much of that first day, those first weeks, because I was too young to know to remember. Too young to pay attention to the details, to note the immigration officer who checked my visa and stamped my passport, to clearly remember what we ate, what we spoke about, how we felt. What I remember are sounds, images, smells that roll across my brain like the opening scenes on the big screen: the impressive San Francisco skyline, which now looks nothing like it did then; the afternoon wind that blew the fog back over the hilly city that day (my first indication that I would always need an extra layer no matter what); the clang of the cable cars as we maneuvered our way through the city to our shingled apartment building on Post Street. Every great adventure should have a memorable soundtrack.
Eighteen years is a long time. It’s a lifecycle. The time it takes for a human to grow, develop and hopefully mature into what is considered a legal adult in most countries. Still too young to drink or rent a car in the U.S., American 18-year-olds can vote, join the army and are responsible for all their own decisions.
It is no coincidence then that during the last 18 years away from the country of my birth, I have grown, matured and learned to pay way more attention, in the country that has become my home:
In Gap jeans and a T-shirt, it’s easy to pass as an American, but what has always defined me as other is my accent. I hang on to it with pride and tenacity – along with my mother’s hot water bottle and my grandmother’s recipe for fish balls, it’s one of the few things I have left of my heritage. But early on I realized not everyone could understand my not-Australian-not-British-not-New-Zealand accent, and since mutual communication is key to forming new relationships, I learned to soften my t’s, roll my r’s, change my inflections and even my vocabulary. As any creature in nature knows, adaption is essential to survival.
While it took only a few days to say trunk instead of boot and to use miles instead of kilometers, American sports eluded me for years. Where I come from we play cricket not baseball, rugby is our national sport, and there is no NBA, NHL, or NFL. It took at least a decade and my own sports-playing kids for me to appreciate and understand the nation’s total obsession with real American sports (Go Warriors!). It’s my oldest who plays that most essentially American game, football, and from him I have learnt the value of participation, commitment, competition, and risk. He shows up for practice every weekday because that is what the team expects, and what he has come to expect of himself. On game days, he pads up, with mouth guard and helmet, and jogs onto the field where there is even greater expectation, and the risk of being hurt or worse. Every time he does that my heart stills in my chest and I hold my breath until his playtime is up, and then the air rushes back into my lungs. And every time he does that he teaches me what it means to put yourself out there, to take a chance with something unfamiliar, to be brave. It means you grow.
And of course it is here, in the U.S. of A. that I stumbled upon my first pair of red boots, and so began my deep love of country music and my exploration of the art of storytelling right here on RedBoots – because what is a country song if not a beautifully descriptive and very dramatic way of telling a story? All the elements of high drama complete with melody: small town, big truck, complicated relationship, whiskey, stolen kisses. American country music and my red cowboy boots helped me find my way to my own stories, and to a home for those stories. If there’s one accent I would trade my own for, it’s that deep Southern drawl!
Eighteen years. Indeed a lifecycle. In this time and in this country, I have become a wife, a mom four times over, a daughter who lives far away, a Warriors fan, a country music lover, a swimmer, a writer. Mostly though I have become someone I was always supposed to be: myself.
With tremendous gratitude to Linda Schreyer and her beautifully evocative prompts on “Home,” and to my dear friends Joanne Hartman and Annelies Zijderveld for helping me find a way in.