It was almost a year until that came to pass – and it seemed like an eternity.
By comparison, the three years I've spent living in America have whizzed by. It's seemed like the blink of an eye since I went from fresh-off-the-boat immigrant to finding myself eligible to take that final step and actually become an American.
And that's what happened yesterday - I became a citizen of this great nation.
When the possibility of becoming a naturalized American came about, there was never any doubt in my mind that I'd take it.
I don't mean any disloyalty to the country of my birth (I love Britain, as long as I don't have to live there) but ever since I was a teenager I've been infected with the delirious, intangible possibilities of the American dream and surely there is no greater embrace of that dream than to become the very fabric of the 'melting pot' that the United States is woven from.
Considering what a momentous occasion my citizenship should have been, it's didn't exactly start auspiciously. Last night, New Jersey was hit with one of those curious freaks of meteorology that leave us more temperate Brits baffled – we had a night of driving rain, icy sleet and freezing temperatures. When I got up a 5am, I wasn't shoveling snow off the Lincoln – I was sliding great big sheets of ice from the bonnet.
Likewise, a 20-minute trip to Newark took an hour and a half – and when I finally got there, half the parking lots were skating rinks without attendants in attendance. At least that meant I could find parking just around the corner.
Naturalization is a far simpler process than you might think. You sit in a big waiting room – like a well-appointed DMV – and are called for your 'interview.' In it, an officer will examine your paperwork and test your English skills and knowledge of America. One of my tasks was to read aloud the sentence: "Which is the largest U.S. State?" I read that, then quickly responded: "Alaska!" Very good, my officer told me, but that wasn't actually on the test.
What was on the test was fairly straightforward:
What is the national anthem of America, who is the vice-president, etc.
I admit I fluffed one: I was asked: "Who does a senator represent?" and I answered "the state" when the correct answer was "the people of the state." I got my own back, though. When asked which war President Eisenhower had served in, the officer had to look up in her book to check that I had the correct answer (which, of course, I had.)
Then there was the waiting – about five hours in all. It wasn't that bad – I brought a book (a biography of Benjamin Franklin, no less, which I was sure would nominate me for fast-track processing) and before I knew it, we were being gathered into an auditorium for our oath ceremony.
Funnily enough, the first thing that stuck me was the fact that we were on the 15th floor of the only tower block in downtown Newark, so the view of snow-covered New Jersey was spectacular. Secondly, I noticed that cardboard cut-outs of Barack and Michelle Obama were overlooking the proceedings.
The ceremony started off with a 15-minute lecture about not laminating our certificate of naturalization, and keeping our cell-phones switched off.
Then we watched a five minute video of Barack Obama welcoming us as American citizens – and that was truly moving.
People bad mouth him all the time – myself included – but this was one moment in which I remembered why I will always consider Obama 'my' president. He was the first president I actively campaigned for, he was the first president who fulfilled any of the campaign pledges that were important to me and, finally, he was the president who welcomed me to America as a citizen (and, as he specifically noted, an equal.)
Obama and I are now considered equals. He still hasn't lent me the keys to The Beast yet, though
The pledge followed, which was awkward. There was a glorious melting pot of nationalities present and I was one of maybe three who spoke English fluently. Therefore, we went through each line of the oath painstakingly slowly:
That wasn't as bad as the next bit – in which we were asked to sing along to a video of "God Bless the U.S.A.," performed in a classic karaoke style. Sadly nobody at the ceremony had been fed shots of tequila beforehand, so our performances were lackluster, to say the least. We all sat there murmuring like teenagers in church.
This song has been stuck in my head since then.
But for all my cynicism, it was an incredibly moving occasion to be a part of.
My only disappointment was that I somehow expected to feel different when I emerged from that room as an American citizen – but the fact that I didn't perhaps suggests I'd been American inside for far longer than the federal government had acknowledged.
But now it was official – for myself, and for the hundred or so other immigrants taking the oath with me. We were given a book at the ceremony – The Citizen's Almanac – which related how leaders from Washington to Reagan and beyond have stressed that each new immigrant and each new culture just adds to our own – and diminishes nothing from American society. It was amazing to think that I was now part of that society, along with all the others in the room.
One thing that was interesting was the demographic of my oath ceremony. Currently there's a huge backlash in America about the 'Mexican tidal wave' and the number of Hispanic immigrants coming to this country. If my ceremony was anything to go by, it turns out that we have nothing to worry about – there weren't that many Spanish people in the room.
In fact, if there was a discernible majority amongst us immigrants, it was a tie between Indians and Asians. It truly was a cultural and racial melting pot - and all the better for it.
So now here I am – an American at last. A journey I first set forth on almost a decade ago has reached it's conclusion… Or has it?
I first started dreaming of living in New York when my father gave me my first Saint novel, The Saint in New York. Since then, I've actually managed to cross the Atlantic, establish a family in this great nation and start a whole new life in America. But that was just the first chapter of this book… Now it's time for me to start thinking of what happens next.
And that, my friends, will be a whole new adventure! Hopefully, you'll follow me along for the ride.