Meet me in St Louis

United States 2005

The day started at four-thirty in the morning. The previous day had seen an exercise in minimalism as I packed my life into a mere fifteen kilograms. Today saw me throw that small weight into a car and drive down to Heathrow with my family in a sleepy blur. A quick check-in, two cups of tea, and my final goodbyes later, I was in the air.

The flight was fairly uneventful. It was the most comfortable flight I remember taking — in fact it was very abstract. I was sat in the middle of the middle row of seats so I couldn’t see outside. I felt like I could be on a train or sitting in a cinema rather than on a plane. I was served by a very nice (but unfortunately male) steward, and spent most of the time watching bad TV and worse films (Alfie is really, really rubbish; I can’t stress that enough). One of the TV programmes I watched was Everybody Loves Raymond: I would say it’s along the lines of the UK comedy My Family — maybe a little funnier but still stunningly mediocre. And yet it’s had fifty-six Emmy awards and is apparently hugely popular over in the US. Interestingly, there was an episode where one of the characters had made a sculpture that (accidentally) looked like a vagina, and although the whole episode hinged around this premise, no mention was ever made of what it looked like. You just had to infer it from unheard whispers and shocked looks.

I landed at Chicago with two hours to get through customs, find my bag, recheck-in my bag, catch a train to another terminal, go through customs again, and board my plane to St Louis. Given all the scare stories on US customs (white gloves, shoot-first-ask-questions-later, et cetera) I was a little worried that I wouldn’t make it. But it turned out just fine: it was very friendly and pretty quick, and was all done within an hour. I did have to give my fingerprints and have my photo taken though.

The flight to St Louis was very quick (we landed twenty minutes early). I had a window seat and as always happens when I can look out over the world I get philosophical. I’m always awe-struck when I see millions of lives being played out below me, each having minute effects on others. The straight roads gave the whole scene the look of a chess board: it felt very god-like sitting thousands of metres above it, as if I could pick up the pieces and move them from square to square.

Chicago was covered in snow, but as we flew away from it the frost reluctantly gave way to the brown earth of Missouri. Rural towns gave way to the suburbs and then we flew over the Gateway Arch and downtown St Louis — my new home — until we landed a few minutes later in the north-west. Eighteen hours after leaving Worcester I was at the Gateway to the West.

Brian met me at the baggage collection point. I hadn’t seen him in nine months so we said a big hello, he gave me a banana and we caught the MetroLink (an overland Tube) downtown. Brian gave me an impromptu tour through the windows, and then after we alighted (always a good word to use) through the medium of pointing. The city felt very alien: the streets were huge, the buildings were tall and very overbearing, the pavements were empty as everyone drove by in their cars.

Soon we reached our new flat: apartment 450 in the New Jefferson Arms on Tucker Boulevard. The apartment block is an interesting mix — it’s bizarre in a good way and I’ll write about it soon. Brian took me up to the rooms that will serve as our home for the next two months: a kitchen, a living room (doubling as Brian’s bedroom), my bedroom, and a bathroom — all completely unfurnished!

I dumped my bags and we went out for some groceries and a look at the Arch. It’s a great piece of architecture (especially when it’s lit up at night) and I’ll get some photos of it soon.

Finally, I realised I’d had only four-and-a-half hours sleep the night before, and I’d been up for twenty-two hours. All the excitement washed out of me and I was taken up with exhaustion. Brian blew up an air mattress and left me to sleep. And I did, for fourteen hours.