We scientists are an itinerant bunch, wafting from job to job, city to city and – frequently – country to country, in search of that elusive permanent position. Because of that, our sense of ‘home’ – a place where we feel rooted – can be even harder to grasp.
I will never forget the first time I touched down in the UK in 1994, on an ultimately ill-fated romantic mission. My first port of entry was Glasgow Airport and, after waiting for a bus on the wrong side of the road, I eventually worked out how to get to Edinburgh. The sensation of being in Scotland was simultaneously foreign and yet intensely familiar, as if it were a place I’d known from long ago. This rightness was so strong that I felt a sharp pang when I landed back home in Seattle: the babble of my native tongue was somehow disconcerting. I wrote in my journal, I know I’ll find a way to return.
I left the US in 1997 for a post-doctoral position in London and never looked back. Aside from my four years in Amsterdam, London has been my home ever since, so much so that when I was homesick in the Netherlands, it was London that I missed, not America.
There are two sorts of long-term ex-pats: those that seem to retain a bubble of their birth place about them, and those that essentially go native. Unlike some of my compatriots in London, I didn’t fight the change in accent: the volume diminished, I rediscovered my t’s and my a’s started to lengthen. In scientific talks, I found myself saying “beeta” and “zed”. British words began creeping into my everyday language, and more problematic American constructions (such as khaki pants – ask your nearest Brit why this doesn’t work) slipped away. Collective nouns became plural. I began putting the word ‘do’ after conditional expressions, saying “as if” instead of “like”, and “quarter past two” instead of “quarter after”. At conferences, Americans regularly mistook me for a foreigner. (In fact, at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting last year, I felt like a total alien.)
Although I finally gained permanent resident status, I still felt it wasn’t enough. I hated not being able to vote, even in my local borough, especially after becoming politically active, and I was sick to death of languishing in the long ‘other’ line in British and European airports. And the current government’s stance on non-EU immigrants made me uneasy; strictly speaking I was safe with my “indefinite leave” status, but who knew where possible future xenophobia might one day lead? In short, the word “indefinite” did not feel quite definite enough.
So this year, I set off on my journey to citizenship. For me, after filling out all the forms, paying my £750 to the Home Office and waiting a few nail-biting weeks (would they reject me for having ‘fessed up to that fender bender when I was 17?), that journey ended in Peckham. On the way to its Town Hall this morning, the signs seemed auspicious.
I even wondered if there might have been an easier, and cheaper, way to become naturalized over-the-counter:
Southwark Council do a lovely ceremony (note the plural collective noun – sort of sexy once you get used to it, isn’t it?).
The deputy major had a purple robe, a reassuring amount of bling and a golden mace that could probably fell an antelope with one swing, and the room was full of about sixty people from all over the world, dressed in their finest.
Two local musicians played Irish jigs, reels and airs for us, in celebration of St Pat’s tomorrow. Ironically, Irish music always makes me feel homesick, in a good way – not because I have more than your average mongrel American’s amount of Irish blood, but because everywhere I’ve lived on this planet, I’ve always found a proxy home in Irish pubs, which specialize in taking in strays and consoling them with their music, sad and joyful all at the same time, in a way that makes being far from home seem bearable. I was genuinely moved by how welcoming the officials made us feel – even the Queen, surveying us all from within her gilt portrait frame, seemed to have a cheeky glint in her eye.
Then it was my turn at last.
Afterward, lesson one: we all queued (politely) to get our photo snapped next to her.
I thought becoming a citizen was just a way to make my life more convenient. But I was not prepared for the deeper impact. Now, back at home in the flat that I own, safe with my family in a neighborhood I have grown to love, I feel a sense of home that I haven’t experienced for as long as I can remember. Maybe laying down roots will become problematic when I start looking for the next lab job, but I don’t care: I feel as if I’ve finally got my priorities straight.
[all photos by Richard P. Grant]