The plane began its descent through the clouds and Lucy’s eyes widened as she looked down on the famous Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan, sparkling in the sun. It didn’t look real, but like a cinematographer’s creation of a beautiful and magical lost city at the far reaches of space, the plane their spaceship about to land, strangers in a strange land. The plane banked and turned away from the magical city, flying over mile upon mile of suburbs, to the edge of the vast, flat Illinois prairie farmlands, ready to land.
During the flight from London’s Heathrow to Chicago’s O’Hare, Lucy was blessed with a well-matched seat mate by the name of Bryan Watson, a grandfather of six and great-grandfather of two, who loved and doted on children. Her three year-old Charlie and six month-old Elise, still referred to as “the baby,” took to Bryan right away, and he to them, which made for a delightful flight, instead of the nightmare she dreaded.
Bryan picked Charlie up and moved him from his lap to the center seat, and made him feel very grown up by putting on his seat belt, then his own. Baby Elise grinned at her big brother.
“I can help you with the children through the baggage claim and customs, until you meet up with your husband,” Bryan offered, “unless you want a steward to help you. And you know I want to meet your husband, I don’t live that far from Fermilab and it would really be something to meet a particle physicist who works there.”
Lucy wanted Bryan to meet her husband Joe, but was reluctant to take up Bryan’s time. The decision was made for her by little Charlie, who clung on to Bryan’s leg and wouldn’t let go.
“That’s very kind of you, I could use the help, and anyway Charlie won’t leave his new best friend.”
They collected their baggage and were through customs, then she spotted Joe, looking as handsome as ever, beyond the barrier at Arrivals. If she were not weighed down with children and baggage she would have run into his arms. Tears were in her eyes as she hugged and kissed him, and introduced him to Bryan. Joe, ever the Englishman, was a little embarrassed, but was obviously overjoyed to see his wife and children. The children were happy and laughing.
“Joe, I could kill for a cup of tea, can we stop and get one?” She badly wanted a cup of tea, but Joe warned her against asking for tea at any restaurant because they don’t have hot tea, only sweet iced tea in a glass, so she settled for coffee and juice for the children on the concourse. Bryan joined them and they exchanged phone numbers and promises to meet again. Joe said he would give Bryan the grand tour of Fermilab. They set off to find the car, a green Ford Escape Joe bought at a good price from a departing physicist. Lucy in a semi-daze, got into the driver’s side of the car, forgetting that Americans drive on the right hand side of the road. Joe laughed at her, but she forgave him when he handed her the thermos of hot, strong tea that he so thoughtfully made to bring along to welcome her. This would have made her cry except she was enjoying it too much for tears.
Lucy was impressed by the wide streets, the big blue sky of the prairie land, and the clean, new houses and shops they passed. She had been expecting to drive through Chicago on their way to their house, but it was suburbs all the way from O’Hare Airport to Batavia, the pretty little town on the Fox River, where their rented house waited for them. It was love at first sight for Lucy when she saw the little brick house with roses climbing around the door, just like home.
But that was where ‘just like home’ ceased and ‘welcome to America’ began. It was getting hot outside, but in the house it was cool even with no windows open – air conditioning! Lucy had never been in an air conditioned house before; big shops and offices yes, but even then 1982 nobody back home had air conditioning in their houses, except the very rich, and she didn’t know any of them. Most of their family and friends didn’t have central heating either, but Joe told her she would be glad of it during Chicago’s winters.
The kitchen looked like something on the cover of a gourmet magazine, the oven was at eye level, the fridge was enormous, and that must be a dish washer next to the sink – everything was covered in shiny stainless steel. There were so many cabinets she thought most of them would be empty all the time.
Joe took her shopping the next day, to show her where the supermarkets were. First they went to an Eagle store, which was the biggest supermarket she had ever seen. There was just so much food and so many choices Lucy couldn’t get a grip on it and just wandered aimlessly up and down the aisles, looking at everything. Joe suggested they get something for dinner that night, and picked up some hamburger and buns. They went through the checkout and left. Then Lucy seemed to wake up and said
“Oh, I forgot to get milk and orange juice for Charlie, and cereal and bread. Oh, dear,”
“Don’t worry, you’re not settled in yet, just give yourself some time to adjust and to get over jet lag.” Joe vaguely remembered feeling at sea like that when he first arrived there – everything was a bit off kilter. He realized he needed to be patient and let Lucy find her way around.
On the way home they passed another, smaller A&P supermarket. But it was not much smaller than the Eagle. Inside, Lucy felt completely overwhelmed – did this much food exist in the world. It was unbelievable. She shook herself a bit and tried to concentrate – buy orange juice, cereal, milk, bread, vegetables, maybe a chicken, potatoes, eggs. Maybe in a few days she would come back here when Joe was at work and just walk around slowly, looking at everything in there. She had never seen shops like these. As they drove home, Lucy thought about how she had shopped in London – at outdoor markets and small, local shops, with occasional visits to a supermarket that would fit inside the Eagle store at least ten times over.
“Let’s all go out to breakfast,” said Joe the next morning. He knew a local family restaurant that was clean and comfortable, and the food was almost as good as homemade. Joe ordered coffee for them and milk for Charlie and they looked at the menu. Joe ordered his favorite, a Denver omelette, but Lucy wasn’t up to trying anything new, and ordered ‘2 eggs with bacon and toast.’
“White or whole wheat?” asked the waitress. It took Lucy a moment to realize she was asking about the toast.
“Whole wheat please.”
“How do you want your eggs?”
Lucy had no idea what this meant, so she answered, “Just cooked,” but the waitress looked angry. Joe thought he should help out and said, “Over easy please.”
When the waitress had gone, Lucy turned to Joe, “what was all that about?”
“It’s how they take your order over here. She was asking how you wanted your eggs cooked.”
“Aren’t they just fried along with the bacon?”
“No, here you can get them fried, scrambled, poached, or boiled.”
“Oh, Joe, I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of things here,” Lucy felt the first pangs of homesickness.
She didn’t have time to feel homesick, as there was always something going on and the people Joe worked with welcomed Lucy and the children to the community. Joe’s friend Sam and his wife Beatriz invited them to dinner at Cielito Lindo, a Mexican restaurant in a nearby town, and their teenaged daughter was the babysitter. Lucy had never eaten Mexican food before, but it smelled wonderful in there. She saw a dish of little red and green peppers, which Beatriz was eating, and a bowl of crackers on the table. Lucy crunched on a cracker, which Joe said was a tortilla chip, and popped a little red pepper in her mouth. Joe opened his mouth to say “stop” and reached over to pull Lucy’s hand away from her mouth, but he was too late. A look of horror spread on Lucy’s face. She was in such pain, her mouth was on fire. She tried drinking water, but that made it worse. Lucy was also horribly embarrassed because everyone was laughing and seemed to thinks it was funny that she didn’t know they were hot peppers. Beatriz, who was born in Mexico, apologized to Lucy and ordered her a glass of milk, which helped her mouth. Lucy couldn’t understand why anyone would enjoy eating something like that. She ordered something labelled “mild” but couldn’t taste it much because her mouth was still burning. She was careful with Mexican food after that.
Lucy and Joe were from the small, overcrowded island nation that was the United Kingdom. Lucy had travelled in France, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland, and Italy. Never before had she encountered so much space. Except for Chicago’s city center, most homes in the area were detached, single family houses with gardens surrounding them, including the house they rented. She loved having such a big garden for the children, but until she got used to the space, she felt like a boat that had come loose from its moorings. As the weeks passed, Lucy found she relaxed into the generous space everywhere and began to like it.
Lucy had often visited Joe’s lab at London’s University College, and was used to the sight of large, strange machinery and rows of computer screens inside the Physics Department labs, but nothing had prepared her for her first trip to Fermilab. Named after famous physicist Henrico Fermi, the labs were in a futuristic high-rise building, with a particle accelerator underground in the shape of a large circular tunnel through which particles, such as neutrinos or protons, were collided at super-high speeds to enable physicists to observe their behavior. The grounds surrounding the buildings were beautifully landscaped with trees, plants, and swans swimming on two large lakes. A herd of buffalo were housed nearby and could be seen grazing in the adjacent field. Physicists from all over the world visited Fermilab to conduct experiments, and most brought their families with them. Lucy thoroughly enjoyed the barbecues and regular get-togethers they held and met many interesting people. There were regular cultural activities such as concerts and movies to attend and Joe and Lucy often invited Bryan Watson to eat dinner with them and then to attend a function at Fermilab. Bryan loved it, and enjoyed seeing Charlie and Elise.
One of the first trips they took was to head south away from Chicago, and Lucy was excited when they crossed the Missouri River. Once away from the little towns outside of Chicago’s suburbs, and into the prairie, she was awed by the spectacle of field upon field of waving wheat, as far as the eye could see. Joe told her it was called “the bread basket of America.”
Almost everything she had seen since coming to America was different from anything she had ever seen before, but it didn’t take long for Lucy to get acclimatized. Joe’s experiment was set for three years, so Lucy was happy she had adjusted to her new life and learned to love it. She never developed a taste for hot peppers.