‘Foreignism’: A Philadelphia diary

Vona Groarke

7 September: Tommy and Eve are back to school. Conor and I are back to class. We have three classes to teach: ‘Advanced Creative Writing’, ‘The Literary Experience’ and ‘Modern British Literature’. Fifty-one new faces to memorize. Seven Lauras. Two Blairs. One DaQueese.

8 September: In swanky Rittenhouse Square today, we pass between two men sitting on opposite park benches. Both are talking to themselves. From the man in the business suit, we catch the words ‘trimester performance’ and ‘accounts’ before noticing the tiny telephone receiver clipped to his lapel. The other man is not so well turned out. He’s saying, ‘Donald can go fuck himself’ and ‘Bastards shot my dog’.

9 September: Eve’s third grade class is doing a human sculpture about Ruby Bridges, the first African-American girl to go to a school for whites. Eve is to be a policeman and has to wear a denim jacket and a tie she’ll borrow from Hunter, the boy in her class who wore a tuxedo to school last week. There is no African-American girl in Eve’s class, so Ruby will be played by Hayley Mangan, whose Dad is from Ballinasloe.

10 September: ‘Show me somebody with a Ph.D who doesn’t go to church, and I’ll show you a Democrat’ – Frank Nugent, Gallup researcher, on NPR this morning.

11 September: Tommy starts at Radnor Soccer. First thing covered is the snack duty rota. Two things he notices about American kids playing soccer: 1) they never pass, and 2) they tackle their own teammates just to get the ball.

12 September: Coverage of the Beslan siege swamps the network news tonight. A week late, it gets featured now because the amateur video footage has just turned up. When Joan drove myself and the kids to Dublin Airport last week, the Russian army was entering the school. We turned it off because Tommy and Eve were asking about it, and who was killing the children, what was the smoke? Conor picked us up at Baltimore, without having heard a word. That night, it was mentioned in passing on the news, after our wake-up weather and a run-down of today’s baseball games. Now with pictures, it moves up the list like news just in, ahead even of the Crisis in Iraq.

13 September: Eve starts karate class. They have to salute the flag going on or coming off the mats. They have a chant they all say at the end: Winners Never Quit, Quitters Never Win. I Choose to be a Winner. Eve learns to count to ten in Korean. Mr Fassbinder asks me how I am. ‘I’m fine, thanks.’ He says, ‘What’s fine? Here you say, I’m excellent, sir.’ But what if I’m not excellent, sir, what if I’m just fine? Clearly, I’m a troublemaker. All the other Moms know the drill.

14 September: Saw a poster for the Commitments, who are playing in the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, about an hour away. The von Trapp family, great-grandchildren of the Captain and Maria, will be singing there next month.

15 September: To get to the Banks’ for Sunday lunch, we take County Line for about a mile, past Saybrook Road, make a left onto Matson Ford Road, right onto Radnor Chester Road (past the Pearl Harbour memorial), right into Hollow Road, right onto Ridgewood and right again into Rebel Road (which is a dead end).

16 September: Word from London that Michael Donaghy has died. Conor interviewed him for Metre at Cúirt 1998. Michael gave a terrific reading. I remember the way he took his jacket off at the podium, like a prize-fighter limbering up, or a model being snapped. Afterwards, I had to pass on a message about a change of the interview time. I come as an emissary from Conor O’Callaghan, I said. He got down on his knees, joined his hands, oriental style, and bowed. Later, in the Atlanta Hotel, we were at the bar having a pint with him when he clammed up, went pale and said in awe, ‘Did you see who that was?’ Turned out to be Frankie Gavin, but it could have been Akhmatova’s ghost, to judge from him. It was a fair indication of where his heart lay: in a room crammed with writers of renown (and otherwise), it was the lead fiddler with De Danaan that stopped him in his tracks. We read ‘The Hunter’s Purse’ tonight. He died way too soon.

17 September: Tommy has a problem with the Pledge of Allegiance they have to take at school. He doesn’t want to. We try to explain the Empty Formula, but he’s not getting it. I say, put your hand on your heart and move your lips to Happy Birthday, if you want. But he’s much too principled for that.

18 September: When I buy a top in Chico’s, they ask my surname so they can register me to receive their catalogue. Eleven Groarke women pop up as resident in the greater Ardmore region. That’s more than I know of in Ireland, not counting family. They slip me in last, alphabetically, right behind Runt (I checked it twice), Sandra and Suzette.

19 September: In the Acme carpark in Wayne, seventeen of the twenty vehicles in our bay are SUVs. There’s even a Porsche SUV. There’s also a regular Mercedes, a cream Lexus and our rented Hyundai Sonata.

Last week, we overtook a white stretch SUV on I-76.

20 September: We go into the WHYY studios today to record our thoughts on Patrick Kavanagh for a Lyric FM programme. Strange to be talking about Mucker on 6th Street.

21 September: My dentist asks me do I follow politics. He’s a Republican and a big Bush fan. I ask why? ‘Because he’s a man. He makes a decision and he sticks to it. None of this faffing around.’

He’s got the drill and I’m flat on my back. I nod along. And the war? Seems Saddam had it coming, after what he did to us on 9/11.

22 September: One of our students asks in class, when we say ‘elegy’, do we mean ‘eulogy’? She knows what a eulogy is, but she’s never heard the word ‘elegy’.

23 September: A praying mantis gets into the house. We don’t know what he is, yet. He looks mean. Conor throws a shoe-box at him. He falls apart like he’s made of matchsticks. Like an origami flamingo, broken up.

24 September: News from the art world. Art’s New Art House is now selling off sofa-sized paintings at an unbelievable $19.99.

In this week’s New Yorker, Sotheby’s have a six-page ad for their Autumn Auction. You could pick up an early Picasso for only $1.5M, but if you want that Mondrian (‘New York’), you’re going to have to pony up a cool $30M.

In the same issue, billionaire philanthropist George Soros recalls how he once bought a miniature Paul Klee on spec from a friend. ‘I couldn’t really see it,’ he said. ‘All I saw was the forty-thousand-dollar check I had written. I couldn’t enjoy it. So I returned it.’

25 September: After three unsuccessful missions last year, Villanova biologist Robert Curry has finally spotted the Cozumel Thrasher, cousin to the mockingbird. It was plentiful on this Mexican island until makers of a 1971 film about sixteenth-century explorers introduced boa constrictors to add ‘exotic flavour’. The snakes multiplied and devastated the stock of Thrashers. It’s found nowhere else in the world, and until today was thought to be extinct. The story makes the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. By our third class, even the students know about it and are vividly discussing the distinguishing features of the bird when we have to draw their attention back to the poems of Louis MacNeice.

26 September: We visit Walt Whitman’s House in Camden, New Jersey. On the tour with us is an elderly man in yellow hot-pants with mauve pockets and trims. He has some questions for the guide. ‘Why is Walt so famous anyway?’ ‘Is he the best American poet of all time?’ ‘So, what was his middle name?’

The bedroom where WW died is fine – beautiful spun glass in windows that would have overlooked the railway in his day. But the back parlour downstairs, where they did the autopsy, is a seriously creepy room. We escape to the small garden and nick a sprig of lavender. We buy green pencils with his name on them.

27 September: The tail-end of Hurricane Jeanne seeps into our basement. There’s a tornado watch until 9 p.m. Pitch dark by 6.30 tonight.

28 September: From Annie Dillard’s book For the Time Being, I learn that at any one time, the foam from breaking waves covers between 3 and 4 per cent of the earth’s surface. This acreage of foam is equal to that of the entire continent of North America.

29 September: Today, we’re teaching Yeats to a class of football players. Michael emails from New York: why not try them with: ‘Go Yeats, it’s your birthday … Let’s party like we’re on Ben Bulben … Go Yeats GO!’

30 September: A car-bomb exploded in southern Baghdad today at the opening of a new sewage plant. At least 34 children who had been gathered around U.S. soldiers handing out candy and cakes were killed.

1 October: Conor and Tommy put on their red T-shirts and head into Citizens’ Bank Park for their last Phillies game of the season. The strategy: buy cheap tickets, sit way up in the gods for the first half, then slip down into the best seats right behind home plate that have just been vacated by celebs. The Phillies haven’t made the playoffs, but at least they beat the Marlins here, 7-2.

2 October: The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival is on this weekend up at Duke Farm in Hillsborough, an hour away. More than seventy poets. Lucy has organized a lift for us, if we can get to her friends’ house for 6 a.m. on Sunday morning: they want to be there to hear Lucille Clifton, Jane Hirshfield and Cecilia Vicuna discuss ‘Women in Praise of the Sacred’ at 7.10 a.m. in the Gingko Lane Tent. We have a lie-in instead.

3 October: Sunday night stock-up before the hired car gets turned in tomorrow at 9 a.m. I drive to Genuardi’s. Renée Fleming is singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs on NPR, a concert she gave in the Kimmel Centre last week, that I missed. I sit in the car with the engine off, waiting it out. Around me, the car-locks spark in tune with the stars. A man drops his paper bag. Tins drift everywhere. A woman runs up to help him gather them in. They shake hands, get in their separate cars, and drive away. The car-park empties out. In the next row, two heads are visible in a darkened car. Are they listening too?

4 October: Celebrities on the electoral campaigns. In the Kerry camp: Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Leonardo di Caprio, Ben Affleck, Paul Newman, Matt Damon, Lauren Bacall, Goldie Hawn and Robert de Niro. In the Bush camp: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kelsey Grammar, Chuck Norris, Pat Boone, Don King, Ernest Borgnine and Wayne Newton (62) – The Crooning Mr Las Vegas. Bush campaign spokesman Kevin Madden says, ‘The world does not revolve around Hollywood, you know.’

5 October: In the last fourteen years, the average weight of Americans increased by 10 lbs. It seems heavier fliers have created heavier fuel bills for the airline industry, which spent $275 million to burn 350 million more gallons of fuel in 2000, just to carry the additional weight of high-flying Americans.

6 October: In London, the Forward Prize ceremony is today. I am shortlisted in the Best Single Poem category. I ask my pop-star nephew, Tony, to go for me. He turns out in his best suit, no one talks to him and he calls later to tell me the bad news. ‘Was it hell?’ I ask him. Very nearly. But at least he didn’t have to read out my poem.

Have to give a talk to the Irish Society at Villanova at 7 p.m. They’re not that keen on poetry. Not one of them has ever read a poem by Wallace Stevens, but they all know their Yeats. I read them one or two of mine and trot out thin opinions about why Ireland is so ‘literary’ (Chairman’s word). At 7.20, there’s a rustling in the audience. Some of them have tickets for Bishop Desmond Tutu in the President’s Lounge. Over half the group take the opportunity to leave. Eve does her homework at the end of the table while the boys are at soccer. Walking home, she asks me, ‘Is the Tootoo guy more famous than you are?’

7 October: Kenneth Bigley is beheaded in Iraq. Public radio news carries it, but the television news programmes do not. Top of their billing is a hold-up at a 7-11 in Chester, in which two shots were fired. Police gave chase, but the robbers got away.

8 October: We go to the Kimmel Centre for a Czech night – some Martinú and Dvorák’s Violin Concerto, played by an astonishing Sarah Chang in a dress straight out of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Kristen, our babysitter, is off in the morning with Habitat for Humanity for a week of building houses for poor people in New Mexico. Her best friend is saving for spring break so he can go build houses for poor people in Belfast.

9 October: Mid-term break. Thirty-seven papers to mark on ‘The Dead’. Some new words for me: ‘exuberating’, ‘immerged’, ‘foreignism’. Fred opens with: ‘The Dead is a short story written by James Joyce. It is found in one of his greatest works called The Dubliners which is a novel that is comprised of many short stories. The Dead is regarded as one of Joyce’s most famous short stories and can essentially be seen as a love story with a twist. Joyce’s story was received so well by the public that it was pursued by John Huston, a famous movie director.’

10 October: An ad for the new series of The Simpsons:

Homer: ‘The World Series … If you’re not watching this, you don’t deserve to be called an American.’

Lisa: ‘Yes, Pop – like voting in next month’s election.’

Homer: ‘Election? What election?’

11 October: Our neighbour has a ‘Moms4Kerry’ sign in her front garden. On the other side, the Persians are for Bush. We shop today for Halloween Costumes: there’s a full rack of Bush and Kerry masks. The assistant says they’re not moving.

12 October: Jim Murphy invites us to join a small party from Villanova that is going in to the Annenberg Theatre at UPenn to see the Abbey’s production of The Playboy of the Western World. Cocktails and a dinner beforehand. I am seated with eight lawyers. One is reading William Trevor. Another, Joe O’Connor’s Star of the Sea. Two of them write my name down in notebooks and say they will look out my books on Amazon. At intermission, they want to know how come I don’t speak like in the play? The waiter is from Inchicore: he says he can’t understand a bloody word of it.

13 October: The last of three televised election debates is on tonight. It seems people like what they see of Kerry: he looks more presidential than Bush. The first debate saw Kerry’s ratings shoot up and Bush’s mouth slump into positions that were not exactly Mount Rushmore-esque. The second sparked a debate of its own: could the bulge at the back of Bush’s jacket be explained by his having been wired? The debates are scripted of course, even the ‘spontaneous’ answers: nothing surprising happens. They each attack the other’s record, affirm their religious faith and devotion to their families, and promise massive changes they couldn’t possibly fund. Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz-Kerry wore similar cream suits at the first debate: I’m sure heads rolled. Tonight, neither candidate mentioned the fact that eight American soldiers were blown up in Iraq today.

14 October: Frenzy over the flu vaccine: there isn’t enough to go round. Big queues outside doctors’ offices. People in masks. Accounts of waves of sick-calls to work so people won’t have to breathe their work-mates’ germs. So far, though, no flu.

15 October: Some American verbs: to out-beat; to transition; to parent; to conference.

16 October: We head over to the Tyler Arboretum in Media for their annual Pumpkin Day. We paint pumpkins, take a hayride, make birdhouses out of scrap wood, negotiate the corn maze and stuff a scarecrow into huge jeans and a bright pink jumper to lurk outside our front window now, scaring the wits out of us whenever we walk by.

17 October: Tommy and Eve hold their own election campaign for President of the Teddies. Eddie Bear is going up for re-election, so a challenger has to be found. Policies are being formulated. Dingly-Dangly Giraffe promises to make voters taller and to distribute free spots. Dingly-Dangly Elephant wants to stop ivory hunting. Pippi offers no rain, ever. Mr Roy Keane will give $1 to anyone who votes for him. Patch wants no more trees cut down for paper (it’s OK to use dead ones). In the end, the popular vote goes to Philadelphia Abreu, baseball bear extraordinaire, who promises more home runs for the fans. Frederick J. Fox comes second: seems the offer of a cookie-dough ice-cream wasn’t quite enough to swing PA. Got my vote, though, or one of them (we each had three).

18 October: Out of 36 young women in our three classes, not one of them has hair cut shorter than her shoulders. I ask them about it in our writing class. Tess says, ‘No, short hair doesn’t mean you’re a lesbian, just a little more hard-core.’

19 October: The pattern of a ginkgo leaf in sidewalk cement.

20 October
: Car vanity registration plates seen lately on the Pike: Jesus4U; Ironmom; AFlower; LiTG8OR; CoClare; HotPant; Patriot; MrDucky; Shrines; SuperMe; Guilty.

21 October: Conor goes to hear Charles Wright reading in Bryn Mawr (women’s) College. He takes directions and finds himself on a thin path between lit dorms, a lone man in a dark coat flitting between open windows and the sound of young women talking to each other inside. If even one of them looks out and sees him, he wonders how the poetry reading would wash as an excuse. He suspects it might make things even worse. He skims through a hedge and up towards Thomas Great Hall, feeling like Dr Kimble in The Fugitive. Wright reads from his poem ‘Nine-Panel Yaak River Screen’: ‘I walk through my life as though I were a bookmark, a holder of place / an overnight interruption / in somebody else’s narrative.’

22 October: The Villanova Campus Ministry has posters for their upcoming prayer days, headed: ‘Trick or Retreat?’

23 October: The Evanses are having a Halloween yard party. Their neighbour hitches a trailer to his ride-on lawnmower and takes the kids for a spin around the block. We hear them shouting ‘faster, faster’ as they swing back by the Ernsts’. The party starts at 5.30 p.m.: by 7, almost everyone is gone, despite an almost full keg of Yuengling and a tray of calzone bites. We linger on under strands of green ghoul lights that Marshall strung up between the trees, rasping through the smoke machine, and watching the remaining kids flare between the hedges with their luminous necklaces and metallic scythes.

24 October: I see The Station Agent in the Villanova Film Society. The speaker beforehand says he visits his mother in Scranton each week to check in on TDF, a local television channel that broadcasts footage of trains all day long. Like porno for train nuts. We live on the Main Line, the original route for trains lighting out for the west coast. The Amtrak passes just behind our house, heading to Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and possibly beyond. We bought a wooden whistle in an Amish shop in Bird-in-Hand that makes the sound of an Amtrak whistle. Tommy sometimes wakes me on Saturdays by blowing it gently just beside the bed.

25 October: Bill Clinton is back on the campaign trail today, with a rally for Kerry in the Love Park in Philadelphia. He says his doctors have advised him to get there early, so he can get in some sleep first. Of his life now, he says, ‘I just sleep and walk, read books, watch baseball – that’s just what I do.’

26 October: The Boston Red Sox win the World Series. Given that they last won in 1918, that’s a sentence that has never before been heard on either radio or television. What effect will this have on the fans? a reporter asks. One of them answers: ‘For years, all the old people said they were living on only to see the Red Sox win. Now they’ll be dying in hordes: the streets will be choked with funeral cars. No priest will get any sleep.’

A full lunar eclipse, the last until May 2007, begins at 9.14 p.m.

27 October: John Kerry visited Anthony, New Mexico, and had his picture taken with two men in the local diner. Except that he didn’t. By mistake, he had been taken to Anthony, Texas. The two men later told reporters they were die-hard Bush supporters, adding: ‘We’re real scared of liberals round here.’

28 October: George Bush visits Pennsylvania for the 42nd time since taking office. He must love it here. At his rally in Yardley, a man with a ticket is roughed up by bouncers and finally arrested for trying to gain admission wearing a Kerry / Edwards button. Pennsylvania is one of three big ‘swing states’. The next President will have won two of these, at least. Philadelphia votes Democrat, but as Kathy Murphy tells us, ‘Pennsylvania has Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west and Alabama in between.’

29 October: Tommy and Eve have a Halloween parade at their school. Lots of witches, a smattering of nerds and some boys in cheerleader skirts. The principal comes dressed as Uncle Sam. The fake traffic sign he carries everywhere has the school motto – ‘Stop and Think’ – on one side, and on the other, ‘Please Just Vote’.

30 October: Eve is making a Halloween wordsearch. ‘How do you spell reaper?’ she asks me. ‘And tombstone?’

31 October: Daylight Saving Time ends this morning but leaves us a gift-wrapped, high-sky day and 73 degrees. Anne Ogutu writes in an internet chat room: ‘It is not God’s will to play with his ability to control time. This is the work of the Devil.’ She should move to Arizona, Hawaii or parts of eastern Indiana where the devil holds no sway: they don’t change the hour there at all. ‘It gets all out of whack,’ one resident claims, ‘you don’t know if you’re late for work or two hours early.’

Halloween: no bangers, no fireworks, just costumes and candy. Our little neighbourhood flickers with angels and skeletons, pirates and cowboys. Groups of them scuttle between houses where owners sit out on the porch, sometimes in costume, with their pumpkins lit and a big basket of sweets and lollipops waiting by their chairs. ‘Look, Mike,’ one of them says when our two trail up the steps: ‘a witch and a skeleton.’ ‘That’s not a skeleton, dear: that’s the Grim Reaper.’ ‘Oh, Mike – you’d think I’d know the Grim Reaper by now.’ Tonight, the tally rounds up to 213 pieces of candy, a huge haul.

1 November: The monstrously popular Howard Stern radio show is offering ‘a boob job’ as a quiz prize. The finalist has to answer three questions. The first two are easy enough: who is the President of the United States, and how many stars are on the U.S. flag? If she gets the third wrong – In what year was the Magna Carta signed? – she can still win by taking off all her clothes.

2 November: Election Day. 55 per cent of the electorate turns out: this is called remarkable. They queue for four hours in Amity Township, PA. There’s a broad sweep of first-time voters that commentators say augurs well for Kerry’s vote. Few glitches are reported. A man is arrested in north Philly when he pulls a letter-opener on a poll official. Another in Berks County for sprinkling white powder on the steps of his local firehouse as he goes in to vote. Turns out it’s salt. The party affiliation of neither is declared. Nationwide, the weather holds. Up to 8 p.m., it looks as if it’s swinging Kerry’s way. By 2 a.m., we are bleary-eyed and dazed. Florida has turned red on the ice-map ABC has built for its election special from Democracy Plaza in Columbus, Ohio. PA is a resolute blue, but it doesn’t matter. The result has been swift, bloodless and breathtakingly routine. Bush has it: four more years. Before bed, the talk turns to 2008: Hillary Clinton should be dusting down her campaign plan and ordering fresh black trouser-suits by now.

3 November: Follow the money: the Dow was up 149 points today. The strongest trading was in stocks of defence contractors, drug companies and oil.

4 November: The National Enquirer tells us that Marilyn Monroe has been found alive and well, and is living with 34 cats and a plumber in Cleveland, Ohio. I wonder did she vote for Bush or for Kerry, so?

5 November: Today, we teach Auden’s ‘September 1st, 1939’, to finish with: ‘May I, composed like them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.’

6 November
: Andrew Veal, a 25-year-old from Georgia who was distraught over President Bush’s re-election, has shot and killed himself at Ground Zero. His mother said he had driven all the way up to New York to do ‘something’ to protest. Veal worked in a computer lab at the University of Georgia and was planning to marry. Police are investigating how Veal entered the former World Trade Center site, which is protected by security guards and ringed with high fences.

7 November: Before she tests for her karate yellow belt, Eve has to write an essay on ‘What is Respect?’

8 November: News on the radio that Kinky Friedman is running for Governor of Texas in 2006. Writer of songs such as ‘They Aint Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore’ and ‘Asshole from El Paso’, the 60-something singer-songwriter’s campaign slogan is ‘How Hard Can It Be?’

9 November: The U.S. Army gathers tonight like a storm-cloud around Fallujah. NPR gives extensive coverage: out of the last 36 hours, the soldiers have slept for 2. They keep awake, a reporter tells us, with Red Bull, chocolate-covered espresso beans, instant coffee granules washed down with cold water, and caffeine gum, which is in hot demand. Apparently, heavy-metal music is being played at a pitch to ensure no one in Fallujah sleeps either. Here, I turn off the radio news, tuck in Tommy and Eve upstairs, wish them gentle dreams.

10 November: Tommy’s electrical circuits haven’t been working right in science class: neither he nor his partner, Joseph Sorkin, can get their yellow bulbs to light up. Today, Tommy fiddles with a chance battery, and suddenly it’s show-time in the dungeon they made out of a beer box, spray-paint and tinfoil links to chain prisoners to the wall. ‘God Bless the Irish,’ Joseph Sorkin says.

11 November: My dentist is a very cheerful man. He’s delighted with the election results, says he believes the world will be a safer place for his 8-month-old son. Things will get worse before they get better but eventually, we’ll beat the terrorists. His son, Shawn, had croup last night: they took him to the hospital at 4 a.m. He must be exhausted, but still, here he is, laughing with Debbie about her daughter’s gawky boyfriend, making sure I’m not in any pain, acknowledging we have different views but saying, just watch, it will all work out, asking would I like to stay in America because there’s no better place to live in the whole wide world. Are Republicans just more upbeat than Democrats, notwithstanding the fact that they won? The word most commonly used in election ads was ‘optimistic’. ‘Be positive,’ the TV demands. I wish I could be. I imagine it would be comforting.

12 November: To get to Jean’s for dinner tonight, we take Spring Mill Road past Oriole Lane and Eagle Farm Road, turn left onto Conshocken State Road (that runs in line with the Schuylkill River that in turn keeps time with the Wissahickon River further up), past Arrowmink Road and Waterford Court, passing over Balligomingo Road, right onto Butler Pike, right again onto Susquehanna Road, left into Limekiln Pike, and there we are.

13 November: At home, we call it ‘Honesty’. It is in season here – the farmers’ market has bunches of it tied up with orange cord that sets off its beige and silver leaves, arranged between Chinese lanterns, Indian corn and swatches of oak leaves. Here, it’s not called ‘Honesty’: the sign says ‘Money Plant’.

14 November: Brunch in our favourite Philly restaurant – The White Dog near UPenn. It’s named for the canine Madame Blavatsky draped on her wounded leg, which subsequently healed. The house beer is called ‘Leg-lifter Lager’. Instead of ‘Men’ and ‘Women’, the toilets are marked ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’.

Afterwards, we head for that famous music school, the Curtis Institute, where students Denis from Moscow, Patricia from Mexico and John from Massachusetts are introducing percussion instruments to an audience of white pre-teens who know a marimba when they see one.

En route, a car swerves in ahead of us. We note the home-made bumper sticker, cut down from a Kerry / Edwards campaign sign by someone not likely to be a Democrat. It reads: ‘darKer rEds’.

15 November: We’re reading Brideshead Revisited with our Brit.Lit. class. ‘Can anyone describe Charles Ryder’s father?’ A hand goes up at the back. Stacie. This should be good. ‘Doesn’t he have, I mean, like, some disease? Isn’t he some kind of, like, leper, or something?’

16 November: We mail an advance party of used books home to land ahead of us in 4–6 weeks. Meanwhile, they’ll be out on the high seas, tossing about inside the trunk bearing my name, written once under ‘from’ and again, in bolder letters, under ‘to’.

17 November: Maureen has a going-away party for Eve. Six 8-year-old girls have made her an activity book to take with her on her trip home. It features a find-the-word game with hidden teachers’ names, a ‘how many stars can you draw in one minute?’ page and a game called ‘Going from California to Ireland’ where you run out of gas and miss a turn in Oregon, move ahead 4 in Idaho on account of no traffic, and go back 4 on the Atlantic Ocean because your plane has gone on fire and you have to turn around.

18 November: In the Title Page Bookshop in Rosemont, I find a copy of Cornelius Rabbit of Tang. Its author, Mary Flynn, wrote an entire series of children’s books featuring the rabbit and his rapscallion friends, Miss Hilda Horse, Edward Elephant and Mrs Sophia Squirrel, who adventure in the underworld of Tang, a townland about three miles from Lissoy, where I grew up. I never did see a squirrel there (or an elephant, for that matter) but they’re still out in force in Rosemont, despite the dipping temperature. Sometimes, the way they run over the sitting-room roof sounds like metal shavings dropped on a kettle-drum.

19 November: Brian from our British Literature class asks us to recommend WWII novels from the British side. His grandmother is from Ballyjamesduff, his grandfather from Poland. ‘I am scared that Bush will have a draft,’ he emails, ‘and since I am 21 and out of college next year, I feel like I will be first on the list. If we have a draft, I don’t want to hesitate to represent my country anyway I can, even though I feel no ties to what Bush is doing. I just want to read as much as I can now about conflict and war.’

20 November: The Official Muslim Comedy Tour, featuring ‘Allah Made Me Funny’, comes to Temple University in the city. Preacher Moss and his tourmates Azhar Usman and Azeem believe the show is a gesture of ‘communition’: ‘If you take away the alcohol,’ they say, ‘we’re all the same. Like one big barbecue. Without the pork.’

21 November: At the dentist (again), a man in the waiting room notices my accent. ‘An bhuil an Gaeilge agat?’ he fairly pounces on me. The words sound so strange, I muster only, ‘Sorry?’ He isn’t pleased. Turns out he’s an American who learned Irish in Gweedore. He soon reverts to his booklet, which I notice is titled Russian in 10 Minutes a Day.

22 November: Tommy brings home a flyer from school headed Radnor Cares About Our Troops in Iraq. To show our gratitude and support, it tells us, each school will be collecting items to be sent out to the troops. The list for our school includes: black and white athletic socks; large handkerchiefs; Trivial Pursuit games; movies (VHS/DVD – No War Movies Please); disposable cameras; large and X-large boxer shorts; flashlights (including extra batteries); fly swatters and playing cards.

23 November: Another poster for the Villanova Campus Ministry: ‘BYOB. Or we’ll give you one.’ There’s a footnote: ‘B=Bible’.

24 November: In Wisconsin, science teachers have been obliged to teach Creationism. Joni Burgin, school superintendent, tells reporters: ‘The science curriculum should not be totally inclusive of just one scientific theory.’ In Dover, PA, the school board votes to require the teaching of alternative theories to evolution, including what they refer to as ‘intelligent design’.

25 November: Thanksgiving, what’s called round here a ‘Festival of family, food and gratitude’. The day commemorates the meal that settlers and Native Americans had together the year they first signed a treaty, in 1621. Nothing to do with us, but as Conor’s barber, Mr Troncellitti says, ‘You here, you American.’ It feels a bit like wearing someone else’s clothes for the day, but we do our damnedest anyway with turkey and pumpkin pie. We had researched traditional Thanksgiving veg, but this turned out to be something involving yams and marshmallows. On this, we pass.

The stock Thanksgiving TV programmes feature Macy’s Parade, followed by two hours of the National Dog Show. All day, a high wind stalks the tall pines that lean in on our house. We gather under the skylight and wonder if we ought to eat in the basement, or the hall. Occasional thunder gallops round the campus stadium. When we sit to eat, we each say one thing we are grateful for. We end up thanking each other. What else would we do?

26 November: Black Friday. Nothing too ominous – it’s so-called because the Malls are black with Christmas shoppers making inroads on their families’ wish-lists. Our nearest is the King of Prussia Mall, named (of course) for Frederick the Great. Apparently, it’s the biggest in America, if you use the ‘most outlets per square foot’ rule of thumb (as opposed to the ‘number of shops’, or the ‘largest area’ rules). I can never get my bearings there: we always need at least two back-up meeting plans, because by now it’s fairly certain I’ll get inconsolably lost.

We go for coffee. The heat-sleeve on my Starbucks cup has detailed instructions for ‘post-consumer’ disposal. When I throw it in the bin, the bin says ‘thank you’.

27 November: We drive three hours south to Washington, D.C., past signs that warn ‘aggressive driver imaging in use’, stopping for lunch in Frank’s Diner in Jessup, where the senior citizens’ menu offers today a choice of grilled meatloaf or chix salad, fries with both, to be eaten within nervous sight of the state penitentiary.

By three o’clock we’re in the Air and Space Museum, rubbing our forefingers over basalt from the moon and standing within inches of the top of Apollo 11, which landed on the moon. It looks flimsy, like something a bright elementary student made for his science project, using tin foil, balsa wood borrowed from Dad and lashings of black paint. But that’s okay: I remember the moonwalk in July 1969: it seems fitting that even the technology should have a jaded innocence by now.

28 November: We are professional sightseers. We have isolated exactly what we want to see and have built a morning schedule that kicks off at the Museum of American History for Dorothy’s ruby slippers, takes in the Museum of Natural History for the Hope Diamond and the Dinosaurs, walks through the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden and rounds back on the Museum of the American Indian. The slippers are tucked away upstairs. I watch. Everyone who comes to them while I’m there clicks their heels together three times. We find Robert Capa’s photos from WWII in a room beside them: he took 73 of the Normandy landings but a rookie back at the dark room in London dried the film too quickly and only 9 of these stunning photographs survive. Beside them is another of the bodies of U.S. soldiers stretched along a beach, with French fishermen, two men and a young boy, pointing at one with what looks like a lit cigarette.

The Hope Diamond – the most visited museum object in the world – looks, to my eye, tacky as hell. The museum store sells $10 paste replicas that look about as good to me, as well as bags of shredded $20 bills for $2 each.

The Museum of the American Indian is the newest and boldest kid on the block, having opened only in September. The sandstone building is gorgeous, the most beautiful object I’ve seen since I arrived. I can’t really see much else: the museum is thoroughly and vastly packed, but there is a corner on the third floor where it is possible to view a video of the Metis from Manitoba fiddling a Red River Jig that sounds like a recording from Céili House, to which men in white shirts, black dickie-bows and a crios round every waist are step-dancing like guests at a wedding in Inis Oirr.

29 November: Driving home, we pass signs for Dundalk, Maryland, which, its website tells us later, has a population of 62,306, about twice the size of Dundalk, Co. Louth, which is our Irish base. Almost a suburb of Baltimore, Dundalk is 88.8 per cent white, with 6,571 Irish, 6 Icelanders and 5 Slovenians on the books. 1,111 residents leave for work between 5.00 and 5.30 a.m. The average age is 39.2 years; average household income is $39,789 and the average house value is $82,500. In Dundalk, Maryland, a four-bedroom house with 2.5 bathrooms, living & dining rooms, new windows, high ceilings, wood floors, air conditioning and refurbished basement in a good neighbourhood will set you back $125,897.

30 November: The Philadelphia football team, the Eagles, are on a roll: they’ve won the Eastern Division for the fourth year running. Last January, when we had just arrived, they were in the playoffs for the Super Bowl, but fluffed it, as expected, in the end. Maybe their fans have been embittered by failure: certainly, they’re plenty sour. They are, famously, the fans that once booed Santa Claus on-pitch.

1 December: Our neighbour has been busy all morning on her porch: she has taken down her Thanksgiving decorations (that went up on November 1st, right after Halloween) and replaced them with items from a huge box marked ‘Christmas stuff’. Our house is a pool of darkness beside hers. No candy-striped plastic cane on the front lawn, no ribboned wreath, no nodding Santa in the window, no twinkling bulbs draped under the eaves. I have to pass her on the way over to work. ‘Nice lights,’ I venture, then take off before she can offer me the lend of the rooftop Rudolph that’s propped against her gable wall, glowering at ours.

2 December: Gullifty’s, our local in Bryn Mawr, is selling a new draft beer they list as ‘Black and Tan’.

3 December: We have an appointment in the Barnes Foundation in leafy Merion, probably the largest private art collection in the world. Certainly the most controversial. First thing we notice is the silence in the gallery rooms: probably more to do with the headsets everyone’s wearing than with awe for the assembled work, though there’s no shortage of jaw-dropping art: landscapes by Cézanne, seascapes by Manet, an array of Picasso from every period, and too many frothy Renoirs. My favourite item is the lapis bull from the fourth century BC. That and the sixteenth-century Japanese portrait of a nobleman in silks.

Unfortunately, I can get a postcard of neither. Dr Barnes, who made millions out of a drug called Argyrol and spent the bulk of it on art, had set ideas about how it should be viewed – not chronologically or thematically, not even arranged by artist. The work is packed tight into looser connections of line and colour without artists’ names or identifying plaques. The collection is scantily reproduced and has only ever toured once; viewing is by appointment only on two days a week (even Simone de Beauvoir was once shooed away from the door). His dogma survives him: the staff are paid to be less than welcoming. At one point, I’m asked to show my notebook, to prove my notes are not sketches of the works. The Barnes is now broke. The book about it I get out of the Villanova Library tonight is called Art Held Hostage. I was glad of the chance to see the art, but I’m sorry the process involved being bullied quite so much.

4 December: Some ads in Philadelphia Weekly. ‘Club Neptune – some attire required.’ ‘Four Seasons Cesspools – for all your cesspool needs.’ ‘Welding Bliss: all ironwork guaranteed.’ ‘Be funny: take our 4-week Humor Class.’

5 December: Sometimes it’s hard to know which rules here are absolute and which discretionary. This morning I counted out 86 cents in change to pay for an item priced at 87 cents. ‘I’m sorry,’ the cashier said, ‘that’s not enough. You’re still one penny short.’ When I call SEPTA Lost Property to see if I left my denim jacket on the train, the woman asks if I’ve filled out a lost property report. ‘Not yet,’ I say. ‘Then I can’t tell you anything.’ It takes me ten telephoned minutes to fill out the form before she tells me no, she has no denim jackets there.

Tonight we see Sideways, the brilliant and bitterly funny new American film. It involves a lot (a heck of a lot) of wine consumption, after which the characters just get in their cars and drive. It’s not uncommon: I’ve seen men too drunk to speak getting in behind the wheel and heading off. Our students (who are not supposed to drink, but assure us that they all do), have never heard of Dessie the Designated Driver, and don’t quite see the point of him when we explain why he’s so popular at home.

A night out in a pub here is like a throwback to the ’70s at home: people downing pints and smoking like oil wells in Iraq, then driving home in too-big cars and Aran sweaters that will smell of the pub for the week.

Buying beer in a D.C. liquor store, Conor was asked for ID. He hadn’t anything on him, except the hotel key card. ‘307?’ the cashier said. ‘Guess that means you’re old enough.’

6 December: There are trees all round us here, sometimes a little too close for comfort, and even a quick jaunt on a back road takes us through woods that crowd like sentries at the verge. William Penn said a squirrel could get from one side of Pennsylvania to the other, tree by tree, without once touching ground.

Conor and Eve go out collecting sticks. They fill the child’s red trailer that someone – a previous transient faculty member? – left in the little shed. We burn from it tonight, these windfall branches that nobody else wants. The scent of them sweetens the house, reminds us, for one evening, of home. Some of them we paint white and scatter with glitter, to stand instead of a Christmas tree in the bay window at the front.

7 December: One of our students is in jail. He was an earnest young man, given to lengthy considerations about the sanity or otherwise of characters in the stories we have set. Last time we saw him, he was wearing shorts in 42 degrees, making plans with Jeanine after class. He had decided to do a paper on Yeats’s Maud Gonne poems. Now, it seems, he had other plans as well. These included breaking and entering an office in UPenn, from which he and his roommate intended to replenish their stock of knocked-off computer hardware. Jeanine is planning to visit him on Saturday. She asks the class to recommend books she could bring with her. War and Peace? (Good and long.) The Bible? (This from Joe, who’s in the military). ‘Um. Crime and Punishment?’ Erin cracks herself up. Mike offers, ‘Well, anything at all by Danielle Steele.’ We leave it at that.

8 December: I buy a gift in a craft shop in Wayne. ‘Would you like it wrapped?’ ‘Yes, please.’ ‘For the holidays?’ ‘Eh, yes please.’ ‘Which holiday, Ma’am?’ ‘I’m sorry?’ ‘Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa?’

9 December: The last of the leaves are cleared away this morning in a Villanova truck. Now we can walk on the pavement, instead of out on the road. Nobody else walks round here: we’ve had students beep us as they pass in their soft-tops, only to say to us next class, ‘Oh, Professor, we saw you walking – we worried that something was wrong.’ Jim lends us his car from time to time and we swan around in the gold Lexus, hoping to bump into some of those same students now.

10 December: Eve goes on a field trip to see the Titanic exhibition in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. As they enter, each child is given a ‘boarding pass’ with details of one (actual) passenger. Eve is Mrs Jane Quick, aged 33, of Plymouth in England, who travelled from Southampton with her daughters, Winifred and Phyllis Quick, in 2nd class, cabin unknown. They were to join Fred, her husband, in Detroit, where he had found work as a plasterer. Jane’s ‘Passenger Fact’ reads: ‘Before Fred left for America, he had pinpricked “I Love You” into a leaf. Jane had carried this leaf with her on the Titanic.’ All three Quicks survived. As luck would have it, none of the passengers in Eve’s third grade died, unlike the real passengers of that other third class, whose names on the passenger display board read like a phone book back home.

11 December
: We drive to Manhattan for the day to admire the big Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree; watch the ice-skaters; jump the queue to see the Christmas windows of Saks Fifth Avenue; take a photo of the Cartier building all tied up in red ribbon; eat potato skins in a New York diner; and still have time for the newly opened Museum of Modern Art, where Paul has arranged day passes that usher us straight to the front of the queue. We’re getting good at this. I’d been before, when it was all bitty staircases and boxed-off rooms. Now it is different – capacious, elegant, generous and lofty. Even Tommy and Eve wanted to stay longer. They were mighty taken with Jackson Pollock: I fear large-scale and somewhat random experiments in paint when we get home.

12 December: Longing for some non-sexual contact with a stranger? The latest craze to sweep NYC and DC is the Snuggle Party. You change into pyjamas, sit in a circle with the other snugglers, they play John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, and off you go a-snuggling for an hour. There are three rules: you have to ask permission before you snuggle anyone, you can’t go further than kissing, and you can’t take your PJs off. It costs $30 to attend. HIV-positive and/or senior citizen? No problem – there’s a special Snuggle Party for you.

13 December: Watching TV tonight, we find ourselves flicking quickly away from a shot of a man in a leprechaun suit – turns out he’s a mascot for Notre Dame University’s football team, known, for no good geographical reason, as ‘The Fighting Irish’ – only to find ourselves in the thick of a Daniel O’Donnell special. We switch it off, read bits of Nabokov’s Pale Fire out instead (by far the best of the ‘English Academic’ novels we’ve found since we came, including Russo’s Straight Man, DeLillo’s White Noise, Chabon’s Wonder Boys and Smiley’s Moo).

14 December: There’s an ‘ethnic brunch’ in Tommy’s class: he has to bring in enough for 25 of a food item that is ‘characteristic of his ethnic or cultural heritage’. He won’t hear of potatoes (‘Mam – who would want to eat potatoes at 11 a.m.?’) Cadbury’s chocolate? (Actually English.) Tayto? (But how will they look different to Lay’s once they’re out of the bag?) Cabbage? (‘Forget it, Mam.’) In the end, I make brown soda scones, which aren’t really associated with any ritual or tradition, and don’t really have any special meaning or story that can be written on an index card for presentation to the class (although I think I may have suggested that brown scones were served to President John F. Kennedy on his visit to Ireland in 1963, and that he liked them so much he asked for the recipe to be sent to the White House chef), but they’re edible, fairly Irish and what I miss when I think of food at home. That and Lifeforce muesli. And Superquinn wafer-thin ham.

15 December: At karate tonight, a few of us parents get talking while Mr Fassbinder puts the yellow belts through their Basic Forms and Block Sets. We are one elderly Chinese man, one Korean dental assistant, one interior designer from Holland and one Irish poet. The two other moms are discussing Ithan Elementary’s plans for its annual Ellis Island Day on the 18th. The parents dress up as guards and officials, and the children are the wishful immigrants. The Chinese man misunderstands: ‘You come through Ellis Island?’ he asks Marja. ‘No. I came through JFK,’ she laughs. ‘Do any of the children get turned back?’ I ask. ‘No,’ she says. ‘They’d cry. We take their names and give them candy, and let them through to the assembly hall, where we all say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as loud as we possibly can.’

16 December: There is a town called ‘Vona’ in Colorado, I learn today. It’s on route 24, between Limon and Burlington (where the Kit Carson Carousel pulls in the punters), dangling between East Spring Creek and the South Fork Republican River.

17 December: North Philadelphia is where we’re told we shouldn’t go. It’s black and deprived, and two white Irish poets asking directions might just attract more attention than we need. The brownstone mansions that cling to the edges of North Broad Street were probably once as grandiose as the Georgian houses of Mountjoy Square, except now they’re boarded up, smattered with graffiti and garbage: dead-end tenements. The Brown Community Centre there is the home of the New Hope School, where two teachers put in ten-and-a-half-hour days with thirteen local fifth-graders in the hope of bringing them up to where the tests say they should be. Cecilia, our former babysitter, is one. We’ve come to talk about Ireland with them. ‘Céad míle fáilte’ they (pretty much) say when we come in. They have questions all lined up. Have we ever caught a leprechaun? Do we have hurricanes? Do we eat lettuce? Spinach? Are we close to Italy? They’re keen and curious, quick to laugh. Cecilia has told us a good number of them come from troubled homes. The school gives them lunch because at least that’s one square meal. Joy wants to know if we’ve ever stood at the very edge of the island, and then what did we see. Brandon asks do we miss our families. Dior is wondering about rainbows, if we have them often there. As he asks, I realize that since coming here, I haven’t seen even one. Shawn has never seen a rainbow. I tell them about double rainbows: they can’t imagine them.

18 December: Things seen recently on sale:

—Individually wrapped Yukon Gold potatoes (Acme, 99 cents each).

—Pre-lit Martha Stewart Xmas trees (KMart, $79).

—12” George Bush Talking Action Doll with 5 inspirational and 20 funny sayings, including ‘We’re working hard to put food on your family’ and ‘Freedom itself was attacked by a faceless coward’ (Strawbridges, reduced to $18.99).

19 December: In 1804, at the request of President Thomas Jefferson, Captains William Clark and Meriwether Lewis led 29 men on an expedition up the Missouri River to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. They mapped what they passed through, gave it a name, collected rock samples, shot their own food and made gifts to local Indian tribes of certificates, medals, pork, tobacco and bottles of whiskey. In turn, they received safe passage, watermelons and bushels of corn. The Expedition Exhibition at the Academy of Natural Sciences gives a good sense of the size and scale of the untamed continent. In May 1805, Lewis wrote: ‘On arriving at the summit of one of the highest points in the neighbourhood, I thought myself well repaid for my labour; as from this point, I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time.’ By November, he was writing: ‘Great joy in camp. We are in view of the ocean, this great Pacific Ocean, which we have been so long anxious to see, and the roaring made by the waves breaking on the rocky shores may be heard distinctly.’

Today the kids ran back from the Villanova stadium because a hawk was circling overhead. We’ve learned subways, museums, broad vowels and chicken wings. They’ve learned wellness and baseball, skyscrapers, strip-malls, new friends and big weather. We never learned the America of full-swing rivers and sky-high peaks, canyons and prairies, corn-fields and camp-fires, flatlands and redwoods, rapids, crop-dusters and steers. Another year. We will come back. We will break new ground.

20 December: Eve has her Big Kahuna at school, which is when she brings in about fifteen items to do with her life and talks about each one to her whole class. Most kids bring photos of themselves as babies, but of course we don’t have any of these here. It feels like our four lives are marooned in the suburbs of Philadelphia without past or future, with only a single, present tense to occupy our time. I try to persuade Eve to bring in Treo Nua, her Irish book from home, and to read to her class a little poem called ‘Daidí na Nollag’, just so they’ll know that such a thing as Irish still exists. But after she’s gone running for the yellow bus, I see the book thrown on the floor behind the coats.

21 December: The temperature swerves from 12F (about –11C) yesterday morning, to 58F (about 14C) today. Yesterday, we were hoping for a late start to school and a small sleep-in based on a wispy snowfall that barely smattered the green area and road; today, the snow boots are back in the wardrobe and Hudson is waiting in orange sunlight and shorts for the bus to come over the brow of Rodney Road.

22 December: Every now and then, we see the past jut through the here-and-now like wooden struts under the canvas of a Conestoga wagon. It’s when we’re opting for Conestoga Road over Lancaster Pike that it dawns on us that perhaps the wagons that carried supplies across the Alleghenies to frontier settlements in Oregon and California came from here. The library confirms it for us. From 1725, they were manufactured in the Conestoga Valley: four-wheeled, unwieldy, haunchy things to be pulled by six horses to the western world. The wagoner walked to the left of the horses, and so began the American habit of driving on the right.

The traders perfected the art of packing a trunk: the Conestoga wagons tilted in towards the centre, so barrels and goods would not come loose on a steep climb or descent. Today we plan how to ship the kids’ Christmas gifts into the hotel without them seeing. Jim’s car has a large boot, but should anything come dislodged and rattle or squawk, all the wrong questions will be asked. While Tommy and Eve are at school, we stow parcels under a big rug, loosely scatter shopping bags from Trader Joe’s on top, throw in three extra coats for camouflage, and top off the lot with an innocent backpack that has our Christmas duds in it.

23 December: Last day of school. Tommy’s class threw him a party and made a card for him with all their names and addresses on it. Joseph says he’s coming to Ireland in the summertime: even if his parents won’t let him, he’ll stow away in a suitcase and we can collect him at the airport. Eve’s class gave her a T-shirt with ‘I-rish you were staying’ on the back. They’re heartbroken to be leaving. Tommy says we can go without him, he’ll live in the basement and steal food when he needs to. Eve says she has to go because Teddy wants to be back in his own room, but only for him, she’d stay with Tommy and we could just manage alone.

24 December: We move into the city, where we’ve booked to spend Christmas at the Sofitel Hotel just off Rittenhouse Square with its garlanded trees and coloured wreaths and fancy shops that are still doing a brisk trade at 4 p.m.

Lord & Taylor may the only department store in the world with a full-size historic and working organ. We see the famous light show there at 3 p.m., sitting on the floor with 200 others whose necks will all be as sore as ours tonight. The man beside me is relaying the show into his mobile phone in what could be Russian. He has nothing to say when the dancing princesses flitter at length on the huge screen suspended over Cosmetics and Accessories, but the wooden soldiers up next are given the full rundown.

The Reading Terminal model train set offers an America of drive-in movies, ice-cream parlours, and car dealerships with Edsels parked out front. There’s a ski-lift, an open-air market, a cluster of scarved snowballers with carolers in their sights, a bank heist behind the beauty parlour and a Christmas tree with lights that can be flicked on and off by every kid whose hand can reach the rod in the tiny Mayor’s hand.

We happen upon St Mark’s Episcopal Church on 16th and Locust, where a Christmas service – nine lessons and carols – has just begun. On Christmas morning 1868, the pastor, Phillips Brooks, tried out a new carol he’d written about his visit to the Holy Land three years before. ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ is sung again this afternoon, and we all join in.

Eve is worried that Santa won’t find her, so Tommy has done a poster: ‘SANTA – WE’RE HERE. SIGNED TOMMY & EVE O’CALLAGHAN’.

25 December: Good man, Santa, he found us out! In fact, he found us out twice, once in the hotel and again in Lucy’s, where we went for lunch and found he’d left crammed stockings by the fire!

This evening, too full for filet mignon (the preferred Christmas dinner of those who can still taste Thanksgiving), Conor has a turkey club sandwich in the hotel bar. We own center city on our walk – not even the homeless are on the streets today. We run together down the middle of Walnut Street past the big stores with their shutters up, with no one to mind us but a dumbstruck mannequin in Prada and two alarms that wink as we pass by.

26 December: In Ireland, it’s St Stephen’s Day. In Britain, it’s Boxing Day. Here, it’s the day after Christmas Day. News of the tsunami in South Asia filters through. In Starbucks, the Coffee of the Month is Sumatra Blend, described on the poster as ‘earthy and unpredictable’. I ask the barista would she not consider this in poor taste now, but she says, ‘It’s only a name, you know. It’s not like it comes from Sumatra or anything.’

27 December: 12,000 delegates to the Modern Languages Association annual conference descend on Philadelphia. The MLA, which traditionally falls between Christmas and New Year for reasons nobody can remember, is academia’s cattle mart. Conor thinks the question ‘Hustling or hiring?’ just about covers them all. The streets around UPenn are awash with squares in suits bought in yesterday’s sales and embarrassed professorial types parading the peaky graduate students for whom they left their first wives.

Conor and I are interviewed for a job in North Carolina. If we get it, we could be leaving Ireland for good. If we don’t, we won’t be back here until god-knows-when.

28 December: The last paycheque from Villanova lands. On the up side, it means we won’t be paying taxes to support this war a moment longer. On the down side, it’s back to the life of freelance writing and all that comes with it.

There’s also a card with an ad for Firestone tyres. On the back, under the heading ‘Have you Seen Us?’ are photos of Ruby Sayre (aged 7) and Bianka Salazar (39), missing from Tampa, Florida, since 23 February 2002. Anyone with news can call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.

29 December: From the journals of Lewis and Clark: ‘Captain Clark was received on an elegant painted buffalo robe and taken to the village by six men and was not permitted to touch the ground until he was put down in the grand council house, on a white dressed robe … The Great Chief rose to with great state and with great solemnity took up the pipe of peace and after pointing it to the heavens, the four quarters of the globe and the earth, he made some dissertation, lit and presented the stem to us to smoke. We were requested to take a meal, and they put before us the dog they had been cooking and pemmican and ground potato. A large fire was made. Ten musicians played on tambourines, long sticks with deer and goats’ hoofs tied so as to make a jungling noise, and many others of a similar kind. The women came forward, highly decorated, with the scalps and trophies of war of their fathers, husbands and brothers and danced the War Dance which they did with great cheerfulness, until about twelve o’clock, when we informed the chiefs that they must be fatigued with amusing us. We then retired.’

30 December: Make a right out of North Black Friar Road onto Lancaster Ave., westbound. Left just after the campus onto 476 (otherwise known as the Blue Route, otherwise known as the Northeast Extension), southbound. 476 ends at I-95, the Interstate that goes unbroken from Maine to Florida. Go north. Exit 14 brings you to Philadelphia International Airport. First on the right is Terminal A, from which our flight departs.

‘Wilbur Wright was bald, you know.’ Eve has taken 100 People Who Changed America – a going-away gift from her teacher – on board to read. ‘And Amelia Earhart wore lipstick.’

‘They never found her, did they?’ asks Tommy. ‘She never came back.’

31 December: Take the M1 from Dublin airport all the way up to Dundalk. Follow the signs for Belfast. First exit off the third roundabout past the Xerox factory. Left off the roundabout at the swimming pool. Left again. Our house will be straight in front of us.




Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 18 Spring 2005