It took almost half a year from the jolting realisation that I needed a car to the point where I held the keys to Saxon in my hand. Along with the smugness of finally having achieved something that every other adult managed to achieve in their late teens already, I felt a relief that I could finally switch out my deadlocked, trapped existence from something a bit more satisfying.
Quickly, I realised the truth. I’d been too eager to pin my future happiness on a definite object, and I’d missed the obvious signs:
THERE IS NOWHERE TO DRIVE TO.
I can take my car to the large supermarket. I leave the campus and pass through a couple of miles of suburban order before hitting the major traffic arteries and the Mall Zone. The vista of malls, superstores, drive-throughs and pokey restaurant strips fans onwards in all directions. Beyond that? Suburban order until we come to the next Mall Zone.
And that is the American heartland.
It echoes back to when I first touched down in the USA and was lodging in an apartment complex in King of Prussia, PA. Heavily jet lagged, I staggered along the road side (no pavements, I had to skirt up the embankments and duck around metal crash barriers) to the supermarket to buy some food. A Google Search had told me that the largest mall on the Eastern Seaboard was located in King of Prussia…that was it. Again: the suburban order of prim little houses followed by the soulless grey concrete of the Mall.
Americans love their shopping malls. I wouldn’t post a status on Facebook explaining that I was “going to the supermarket”, but it would be well within my rights to fore-post about a trip to the mall (an exclamation mark or two is the de rigeur accompaniment). No one of my American friends would consider it untoward if I shared with them a selfie during said mall trip (I’ve yet to see anyone post a selfie from their supermarket excursions). I can tell you with authority that some young Americans – presumably without much life experience – would consider the mall a prime location to (i) take a date (ii) “pick up chicks”.
To me however, there is no soul or personality in these retail wastelands. There is no allure or excitement out here. I turn Saxon around and drive home.
If I had a chance to meet my younger self for a coffee as she pulled together her PhD applications – and I think she was quite open to advice at that time – I’d probably have warned her. “Look, kid. The PhD is going to burn up a lot of your time and energy, so much so that you’re going to be spending almost the same amount of (per annum) time in your beloved Philadelphia during the American PhD as you did when you were domiciled in Europe. Except that instead of being able to spend your weekends people-watching in Edinburgh coffeeshops, cycling around London or swimming down the Rhein, you’ll be stuck on a university campus in the middle of a mall strip non-urban deadzone. For what it’s worth, you may as well just apply to cities all over the States. You liked Austin and Chicago, yeah?”
Which isn’t to say that I regret my choice or fault my reasoning in the application/decision-making process…but it would have been nice to have given myself a better class of choices.
2015 comes with hope, though. If getting a car isn’t enough to escape, then perhaps a chance of address will bring an improvement.