The Green Card

My American Idyll was recently interrupted by a dose of reality by the Department of Homeland Security: the green card interview. I have been waiting to become a permanent resident for a long time, but chance just didn’t favor me on two separate occasions. Then, out of the blue, I married a naturalized American citizen (born in India), and the path to the green card opened up for me, just like that.

In retrospect, the granting of my green card, which allows me to live and work in the United States, occurred with very little fanfare; so cut-and -dry and legalistic were the proceedings that it was actually anticlimactic. How was the immigration officer to know that I had waited for this day since I was 7 years old, when my family left the United States for our home in England, only to eventually move even farther away to India when I was 9? To him I was just another green-card-by-marriage application.

We started out early in the morning of July 17th for the USCIS office in Tampa, which is where the interview was held. The waiting room was quiet, filled with dozens of hopeful green card and citizenship applicants. There were some “foreigners,” like ourselves, but the room was largely filled with Hispanics, most of them there for their citizenship interview. Our appointment was at 10 am. We were in the building by 9. 10am came and went; soon it was 10:30, and then 11, and my name hadn’t been called. I had a sense of foreboding, and an all-too- familiar paranoia soon engulfed me: what if the USCIS had made a mistake and there was no record of me in their system? What if they had decided to postpone the interview and had failed to inform us? I was beginning to convince myself that something was going to go wrong.

But here is where I give the USCIS credit. Their staff were polite and helpful, and one officer managed to go inside the interview area, confirm that my name was on their list, and inform me that they delay was because one of the interview officers was on leave that day. “They will call you soon,” she said to me reassuringly.

A gruff, stocky white man, who had earlier chided a couple because one of them couldn’t speak English, called out my name. A mild sense of doom returned — he had seemed to me the least likable of all the immigration officers we had seen that morning, and he was going to interview us? Oh no.

I prepared to approach the doorway, when he stopped me and said that my husband was to go in first. He would interview him, and then they would call me in. I handed my husband the file with all of our papers and photographs of our wedding, knowing that my fate –our fate — was hanging in the balance. It’s true that we were both confident that the interview would go smoothly, because our application was solid, but now that the moment had arrived, I was unnerved.

A short while later — maybe 10 minutes? — I was asked to go inside. I beamed at the officer, determined to project warmth and confidence. I had to take an oath to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He quizzed me for a while about how my husband and I had met, when and where, asked me about my step-son, and then proceeded to verify several details in my application. Everything seemed to be going well. He was pleasant and even bantered with us about some restaurants in our neighborhood in Florida. Finally, without much further ado, he pronounced that everything seemed to be in order and that he just needed to get the higher-ups to sign off on the application.

That was it. He soon came back with a letter declaring me to be a legal permanent resident of the United States of America and informed me that the actual green card would be in the mail soon.

Three and a half hours after first entering the USCIS office that morning, I was now, finally, a legal resident of the United States.

The Everglades, Southern Florida

Last weekend, casting around for something to do that would involve a “long drive,” we decided to explore the Everglades, southern Florida’s breathtakingly wide expanse of swamps, mangroves, and prairie land that stretches almost the entire span from its west to east coasts. Our first stop was Captain Doug’s airboat tour near Marcos island, which took us at a good speed through the watery mangrove swamps. Madhu posed with a baby gator before we got into the boat, and a short ride later, we encountered a friendly but lonely raccoon who came out of hiding to meet and greet us and be fed by our boat captain. Disappointingly, we didn’t see any other wildlife, except for some birds (cranes and pelicans).

We drove up to the Big Cypress National Preserve after that, further east on I-41, and caught fleeting glimpses of a Manatee. We also went on a long 2-hour hike through the woods on a hiking trail running the length of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park — again, not much wildlife to speak of, but we did see some interesting birds, and later that day, I caught a glimpse of a stately bright-red Cardinal.

The next morning, bright and early and shortly before dawn, we commenced a long drive to the Shark River Valley, the other end of the Everglades, near Miami. That was to be the highlight of our sojourn through the Everglades: we had planned to go on a 15-mile bike ride through this part of the forest. The trail was paved and easy to navigate, and it etched a circular path along which saw a lot of alligators sun-bathing with their eyes closed and mouths half open. Some of them were giant reptiles, and in places there were whole packs of them, partly submerged in the swampy water. From the observation deck we also managed to spot a couple of turtles. The ride back to our starting point was a bit more difficult than the ride in, because the wind was blowing against us, and our bikes didn’t have gears, so we just had to pedal doggedly until we covered the remaining 8 miles of the trail. But we did it, and were none the worse off for it.

Having made it this far east, we decided to plug on further along I-41 and hit Miami. The contrast between biking amidst alligators and negotiating Saturday afternoon city traffic on a Miami freeway was stark, to say the least! But we caught some spectacular views of the Miami skyline, and then headed out to Miami Beach, where we enjoyed a view of the Atlantic while sitting on the beach and reading our books for a couple of hours.

I drove most of the way back from Miami to Bradenton and have finally overcome my fear of the expressway ūüôā I am now on my way to becoming a gator-spotting, road-hogging beach bum. Starting to feel at home in Florida!

A View from Florida

Marriage and a chance relocation have brought me 10,000 miles from my native India to the sunny climes of western Florida, in Bradenton-Sarasota. While the palm trees lend a familiar tropical flavor to my new surroundings,  the challenges of driving on the right-hand side of the road, the expansive shopping plazas, and the manicured and landscaped lawns confirm for me that I am indeed back in the United States of America, right at the time when election fever is mounting and the debate over health care is once again at center stage. The last time I was in the United States was right before Barack Obama was elected, in the summer of 2008; there will be another 9 months of suspense before we know whether Obama is going to make it back into the White House next year. Speculation is rife. But while  the election drama unfolds, my husband and I are enjoying our explorations of this coastal nook of Florida. One thing I like about this state is that there are large bodies of water everywhere; even outside our apartment, overlooking the balcony, there is a large pond that ripples gently in the breeze all day long, giving this area a resort-like quality. Living here is like being eternally on holiday.

We’ve been to two beaches so far: Siesta Keys and Lido Beach. Both have vast expanses of white sand and pure, clean waters. The sea gulls and pelicans are very tame here; they fly close to the shoreline and are seemingly unafraid of humans. The sunsets at the beach are spectacular; a few weeks ago we actually watched the sun dip below the horizon at Lido Beach against a reddish-orange backdrop. The beaches were not crowded went we visited them — in fact they were somewhat deserted. But I am sure that the sands will be teeming with vacationers when my first summer in Florida eventually rolls around.

So far, we have visited:

The Dali in St. Petersburg (http://thedali.org/); Orange Groves and Winery (http://www.floridawine.com/); The Pier at St.Petersburg; International Plaza in Tampa; Sarasota beaches; Downtown Sarasota, where we hung out at the 5 O’Clock Club (http://caroline941fl.web.officelive.com/default.aspx)¬†and listened to The Bonesha

kers after downing a shot (only one!) of tequila. We’ve eaten well at Main Street in Lakewood Ranch and have sampled some offerings from the Sarasota Film Society, most notably¬†The Artist and A Separation. ¬†We even managed to catch some classical piano music (Chopin’s works, played by Russian pianist Eleonora Lvov).

Next on the agenda: The Everglades.

Travel: Rome and Florence 2012

Colosseum

Outside the B&B, on Via Collina

It was a cold day in February when my husband of 6 days and I landed in Rome. There was still slushy snow on the ground and a tantalizing nip in the air. The driver of our airport shuttle — a sleek black Italian-made vehicle — whose name was Fabiano (spoken with a sing-song accent on the third syllable [Fab-ee-AHN-o]) efficiently conveyed us to our cozy bed and breakfast in an imposing building with large doors on a quiet street near Via Settembre on the north east side of the city. It was late in the evening when we arrived, and the roads were largely free of the clutter of rush-hour traffic. Rome looked shiny and elegant in the artificial light of the street lamps.

Inside La Baita

Bruschetta

Dinner was simple fare — bruschetta followed by thin crust pizza with wild mushrooms washed down with some wine at a small but tasteful pizzeria (La Baita) down the street from where we were staying. The decor and ambiance were a far cry from Pizza Hut’s. There were candles and wine glasses on the tables, and wine bottles decorated the delightfully old-world brick walls. The waiter threw in a free and deliciously lemony digestif at the end of the meal — a distinctly European touch that I was experiencing for the first time.

A decorated ceiling inside the Vatican Museum.

Day 1 in “Roma” was spent largely at the Vatican Museum, where we were spellbound by ornately decorated ceilings, all manner of sculptures, and of course, the piece de resistance, the Sistine Chapel. (A testament¬† to the efficiency of the Vatican Museum is surely to be found in the fact that we were able to retrieve, with minimal fuss, an iPad we had “lost” near the entrance to the Sistine Chapel. Once we discovered it was missing, we reported the loss to one of the security guards, who with one short call on his walkie-talkie was able to ascertain that someone had indeed turned in an iPad with a black cover at the lost-and-found counter near the museum’s entrance. I couldn’t help thinking that if this had happened in India, we would never have seen our iPad again.) Inside¬† the Sistine Chapel, an audio guide to the frescoes on the walls and ceilings brought Michelangelo’s genius alive for us. In general, I found that the audio guides to be¬† had in a number of Italian museums, including the Borghese, were really useful in helping one to navigate the rich repositories of¬† sculptures and paintings.

St Peter's Square

Michelangelo's Pieta

After we had feasted on the visual delights inside the Vatican,we took a short stroll to the famed St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. Unfortunately it was too late in the day to go to the top of the cupola, but we walked through the magnificent piazza and looked at the art and sculpture in the main hall, where¬† Michelangelo’s Pieta reposes, dimly lit. An evening mass was about to commence, and we saw some priests and choir boys make their way to the altar and begin the prayers while a sacred hush settled over the interiors.

On our way back to Via Collina from the Vatican, we experienced something closer to home when we encountered a man from Bangladesh selling woolen caps and gloves on the street outside the Vatican walls! It was truly astonishing to see how many immigrants there are from the Indian subcontinent in Italy. A few days later, in a restaurant near the Pantheon, we had a waiter who was originally from Calcutta.

We spent days 2 and 3 in Rome visiting more museums (notably the National Museum and the Borghese Gallery, which is home to some fabulous Bernini sculptures) and also touching on the archeological hotspots like the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Forum and the Pantheon. Mode of transportation: mostly metro, bus, and our own two feet. The 3-day Roma Pass we had purchased gave us unlimited travel on public transport, and we made the best use of it. Rome is a very walkable city; in fact, if you don’t walk everywhere, you are likely to miss a lot.

The Florence "skyline"

"Trenitalia"

We spent days 4 and 5 in Florence, soaking in more art and history, and ending it all with a long walk by the river Arno, past the Ponte Vecchio. We took a high-speed train from Rome to Florence that took us about an hour and a half. We travelled second-class, which was still comfortable and quite roomy.¬† In Florence we sampled gelato (I had one that was Tiramisu flavored — a case of overkill?), some Tuscan cuisine, the sculptures of Michelangelo (most notably his David), all the art the Uffizi could hold, and some delightful river views. The spirit of the Renaissance¬† is still alive there, amid the cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and medieval architecture, despite the slick and touristy facade. In contrast to ultra-modern skylines made up of chrome and steel skyscrapers, the sight of the distinctive reddish Duomo rising above a teeming vista of old buildings and towers reassures one that in some parts of the world, the forces of modernity have not completely leveled the glory of the past.

Creative Writing for Kids

Today was my second time as a creative writing facilitator¬† with Chillibreeze in Bangalore, at the Doodles and Scribbles Creative Writing Workshop, 2011. The theme of my workshop was using music to stimulate creative writing. The workshop was aimed at children in the 10-15 year age bracket. I selected a variety of musical pieces — Mozart, Vivaldi, Jazz, Hindi film song, and pop — and asked the kids to write in response to the music. What did the music make them feel and see? What words did they associate with each particular piece? Could they craft a story line based on the music and with the help of some topic-prompts? This¬† idea was totally experimental — I hadn’t tried anything like this before and approached the workshop with some fear and trepidation. What if the workshop totally bombed and no one could think of anything to write after listening to the music? What¬† if the children just stared at me in confusion? Was the concept too abstract for a 10-year-old to grasp?

My fears flew out of the room as soon as we embarked on the first exercise: listening and responding to “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Most of the participants associated it with bright colors, like orange, gold and green/yellow; with celebration; and with a formal setting, like a ballroom. They all got the basic idea¬† that music can correspond with moods and emotions, and were able to connect with the emotion behind a piece such as the Four Seasons. I had similar results when I played a Hindi film song (“Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire), Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusic,” and “Taare Jameen Par,” from the film of the same name. Some were even creative enough to associate Mozart’s lively piece with a green salad and a Latin Jazz piece with road-side festivals. When asked to create stories, they produced imaginative pieces about Irish castles shrouded in mist, Kings and Queens in royal gardens, imaginary “time shifters,” metaphorical kidnappings, chasing after thieves, stolen birds, talking dolphins, and Tom and Jerry in outer space.

The final activity was a group activity asking the children to listen to Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” and write about a character with superhuman powers who had the power to make the world a better place. They invented imaginary supermen and women such as Captain Triple R, Ecogirl, Dr. Bandage Mesmer, and Plumbogreeno, who is¬† a plumber with magical powers to to save water, bring dead plants back to life, and end global warming. Their imaginations were on fire as some of them even drew pictures of their invented superhero to illustrate their narratives. This is the part of the workshop I personally liked because it gave them an opportunity to interact with others in their groups and collaborate on a piece of writing. Although the individual writing activity was popular with the kids, there’s nothing like group work to make a room come live with the sounds of many voices in animated conversation with one another. There was a spirit of freedom and abandon in the air that allowed their creative sides untrammeled access to the world of the imagination, all inspired by the sounds of music.

Eat Pray Love . . . Then Marry

I am now more than halfway through Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Committed. I chanced upon it by accident while I was browsing at a bookstore last weekend. I have been a great fan of Eat Pray Love and have been looking around for something else to read by the same author.

Well, Committed pretty much “peels the onion” as far as marriage is concerned. Grandly renouncing the rose-tinted spectacles of romance, the author leaves no stone unturned in her quest to completely demythologize the world’s oldest and most revered institution — all in her own inimitable style. I must say that I envy her sense of humor and quick wit — both of which made Eat Pray Love such a resounding success.

The gist of Committed is that marriage is more often a curse than a blessing, especially for women. It’s something many women do because they feel that they have to. It’s a compulsion rather than a choice, a compulsion driven by thousands of years of rationalizations, injunctions, and decrees, as well as cultural stereotypes that leave no role for women other than as wives and mothers.¬† At the same time, there are, she acknowledges, good reasons to marry and to stay married:¬† children, companionship, stability, the experience of being a mother, the need for family — but these are not reasons that have ever appealed to her (and, dare I add, to me either).

On Exile

From Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender:

The exile feels that the state of exile has the structure of a dream. All at once, as in a dream, faces appear which he had forgotten, or perhaps had never met, places which he is undoubtedly seeing for the first time, but that he feels he knows from somewhere. The dream is a magnetic field which attracts images from the past, present and future. The exile suddenly sees in reality faces, events and images, drawn by the magnetic field of the dream; suddenly it seems as though his biography was written long before it was to be fulfilled, that his exile is therefore not the result of external circumstances nor his choice, but a jumble of coordinates which fate had long ago sketched out for him . . . (9).