Tuesday, July 14, 2015

When We Were Aliens

La Famille Texier: Patrick, Thomas, and Sara.
The Texier family's American experiment started on July 14, 2001, exactly fourteen years ago, when Patrick unofficially emigrated to the U.S. In celebration of that event (which eventually led to a U.S. passport). The photo was taken several years later in Vermont (it became our Christmas card that year). The following paragraphs are from chapter 8 in An Irruption of Owls, which is due for release tomorrow, July 15.

The Texier family crossed the Atlantic like the three Billy Goats Gruff. I went first: My task was to nail down a steady job, then send for the others. At Kilimanjaro Airport, I kissed Patrick and Thomas good-bye and folded myself into coach class; twenty-three hours later I unfolded at Newark Airport. Standing in the line for U.S. citizens I felt strangely clandestine: Nowhere in my travel documents did it say that I was the vanguard of a little family of aliens. “Welcome home,” said the man who stamped my passport. Within a few days, I was working for MBA Jungle, a fledgling magazine for business students, its offices in a SoHo loft.
    Patrick came next. I met him at Newark Airport on the morning of July 14, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Patrick infiltrated Les Etats-Unis on tiptoe, passing muster with his French passport and the straight-faced assertion that he was a tourist. This statement went unchallenged by the immigration folks, even though Patrick was pushing a baggage cart that groaned under the weight of literally everything we owned, including two bicycles, a suitcase full of women’s clothing, and another filled with Thomas’s books and toys.
    Thomas arrived in mid-August, having spent the summer eating chips and watching TV at his grandmother’s chic apartment near the Château de Fontainebleau. By then we had a two-bedroom rental on a busy street forty minutes by train from Manhattan. It took Patrick and me one hectic morning to find the apartment, riding around the suburbs in an SUV, a doughy and perspiring real estate agent named Alan at the wheel. It took another hectic morning at IKEA to furnish it.
    Patrick hadn’t made a major shopping foray in the home furniture line for many years, his most recent acquisition having been a couple of straw floor mats, handed over in exchange for a few shillings placed in the palm of the weaver, a woman whose place of business was a few square meters of roadside dirt on the edge of downtown Arusha. I did my best to prepare one so innocent for the IKEA experience, explaining that what made the furniture a bargain was that it came in small boxes, which lowered transportation and storage costs, savings passed on to the consumer, but that you had to assemble it yourself, and so on. I warned Patrick that on a Saturday morning the place would be swarming with shoppers and their carts, that the store was gargantuan and the choices endless, that finding what you wanted meant reading tags and jotting down numbers and then searching through a gigantic storeroom, and that the whole ordeal required nerves of steel.
    We got off to an early start, driving along swirling ribbons of highway through concrete wastelands until we found the store, where, starting on the top floor and working our way down, we picked out living room furniture, bedroom furniture, a dining table and chairs, lamps, and bathroom accessories. Neither of us was an enthusiastic shopper, but we persevered. By noon, we were in kitchenware, nearly done.
    “Which do you prefer?” Patrick asked, a stainless-steel pot in his right hand, a Teflon-coated aluminum one in his left. I looked from one pot to the other, and froze.
All morning I had been trying not to collapse under the weight of what we were doing—had done, I should say, because it was too late to turn back. Tanzania was impossibly far away, and our life there, which had begun so sweetly and ended so abruptly, was over. Our garden with the canna lilies and the banana trees, the gardener blasting rasta hits from his little radio, over. Our morning wakeup calls—first from the neighborhood rooster, then from the canned call to prayer—our lazy afternoons at the Mambo Café, our peaceful evenings reading by candlelight, all of it, over. We were here now, at IKEA, buying sensible Scandinavian-style furniture and kitchen supplies.
    Blindly, I stared at the pots, unable to choose, unable even to make an arbitrary decision. Then I took a step forward, put my head on Patrick’s shoulder, and started weeping as shopping carts detoured around us.
    Still holding the pots, he put his arms around me. We stood like that for a few seconds, until I pulled myself together. “You decide,” I said, finally, raising my head and wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. “I can’t make any more decisions today.” Patrick quietly put the stainless steel pot in the cart, and we headed toward checkout.

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