I swapped the Cotswolds for Washington DC – nothing prepares you for how odd and wild America is

I was so homesick I had to stop looking at images on social media of my friends in beloved, familiar landscapes of home. At times I felt my life had been reduced to getting stuck in underground car parks in a car that was too big at an exit barrier that would reject my bank card. 

Most of all, I was confused by how very foreign America felt. I’ve consumed huge amounts of American novels, television shows, movies and music, but living here is a very different thing, and in some senses our shared language makes the shock of the foreign even more confusing. This country, I’m learning, is odder and wilder than anything I’d prepared myself for, its food, education, humour, language, climate, landscape and emotional sensibilities all very different to ours, and the fabric of this wildly multicultural society defies definition. 

This also makes it beautiful and exciting: a normal Saturday can involve taking our sons to karate lessons with their Iranian-American teacher, followed by lunch at an Ethiopian café and coffee in a Jewish deli, before driving into rural Pennsylvania to catch the end of an Amish quilt sale and grabbing tacos in a Tex Mex café on the way home. I love the wild sense of possibility here, and the collision of an infinite number of cultures and races, which is unlike anywhere else. 

Looking back, I can see we all, apart from Pete, who was already acclimatised, went through a period of acute culture shock, something that’s subsided slowly, tentatively, as we’ve started to create a sense of home, albeit impermanently, in DC. Autumn brought with it the sugary thrill of an American Halloween, with life-size pirate ships of model skeletons and huge blow-up ghosts decorating houses, and trick or treating – a vast, communal activity, where adults chatted around front-lawn fires while the children darted madly around lugging pillow-cases of candy. 

I love the American impulse to decorate the outside of houses, not just at Halloween, but for any festival, light-up candy canes and life-size sledges on front lawns lingering right into February, when they’re replaced by ditzy pink lights and blow-up hearts, for Valentine’s Day, then swiftly replaced again by bright green shamrocks made from tinsel for St Patrick’s Day. 

In the winter, snow lay thick and bright white for 10 days everywhere, and Dash and Lester earned forty dollars shovelling snow from front yards, like they were in a movie. Early spring has brought the astonishing froth of cherry blossom over the Tidal Basin, and we have favourite walks through Rock Creek Park, which brings a surprising sense of the wild, natural world right into the middle of the city, just blocks from the blacked out SUVs and presidential cavalcades of the White House.  

Everything in America is, of course, bigger, but embracing these seasonal rituals has helped the children feel at home in a city totally at odds with the rural landscape they knew as home. We wanted the children to go to American state schools, and they’ve swapped their village school, where they knew all the 100 pupils, for much bigger schools with an incredibly diverse intake, swapping break for recess, a peg for lockers and PE for basketball, and are learning about periods of American history they knew nothing about. 

The definition of home will always be England, and sometimes I feel gratified by how much the children miss the fields around our house, the green where they played and the village shop where they went for Haribos. I’m pleased that that landscape I love so much is in their souls and is the place they think of when we talk about home, but it’s exciting to watch their horizons literally expanding by the experience of our big American adventure. I still feel homesick, of course, but transplanting our life is also showing me that home can be a feeling as much as a place, and represented by a person more than a feeling, because more than anywhere else, home for me is with Pete.

The Giant on The Skyline by Clover Stroud (Doubleday) is out now

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