E Pluribus Unum

So I return to England, whereupon I am immediately whisked off to Eastbourne (think Florida – full of old people) to stay with my Grandparents for the weekend. Which is why this has been strangely void of denoument.

My travels across America have shown me some interesting things. It’s a land of extremes. Nothing is done by half if it can be done by whole, or preferably overdone – unless it’s the steak. What are you, some kind of inbred?

First and foremost, I suppose, the diversity. America as I experienced it was cut into five chunks, broadly speaking. The west coast, with its party-hard south and sanguine north; the dustbowl in the middle (here be dragons); The south and deep south, where two cultures steadily intermingle and the adage that America has no official language really is poignant; the east coast and Appalachia region, and the northeast, from Minneapolis (though really, more Chicago) to New York and above.

I’ve talked at length about most of these areas, though I have no official summary for my northeast experience, so I shall just write that now:
The northeast saw me in with rain, promising much but equally mysterious. Mist shifted under the tyres of the bus and the roads were murky and slick. As I headed to Chicago from Minneapolis I felt that the Twin Cities, whilst very enjoyable, were nonetheless likely to be comprised of different stuff than the hard-nosed town of Capone and the places to come. And I was right. Although perhaps coloured by my lack of stops in rural areas in Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania, the northeast felt as different to the ‘flyover’ states as California had felt to Texas. Here I found a populace altogether more fast-paced, more urgent. There seemed less time in the day than in the south, despite the long northern evenings. Creativity that had been demurely expressed in murals and statues in areas like San Diego, Denver and Sioux Falls was here honed into fierce little pinpricks of rebellion: signs hung in vacant windows and graffiti staining vacant lots, people singing on the street to apprehensive glances. The city life lends itself to this individualistic need, I often find. In a place with so many people, you need a loud voice to stand out, even if only to yourself.

Chicago and Pittsburgh felt like conceptual road bumps on the way to New York, which is in no way meant as a slur. Indeed, I was enamoured with Chicago in particular, and Pittsburgh was no slouch either. But New York is just so big. So fast. If you haven’t got time for New York, then New York has no time for you. Take whatever measure you wish of almost any other city in America: when it reaches New York, it is magnified. Even to me, aspiring city-dweller, lover of urban rush, inveterate traveler, New York damn near swept me right off my well-prepared feet. I can see why people would fall in love with the place, and I can see why people would hate it – but there’s no denying it’s an astonishing spectacle. I had heard people compare it to a theme park before I came out here, and I’m not sure they were far wrong.

The lead weight of New York on the rubber sheet of the northeast is a hard force to resist when weighing up the area as a whole, and unfortunately I did miss New England so I’m sure that my analysis has gaping holes, but once again I did feel more like I was in the modern world, up here. I felt like I belonged a little bit more; that the phenomena I observed in California could perhaps be applied again. Maybe I need to come back.

Going back to the point, however, this diversity is extraordinarily varying. Though I cut up the US into loosely-defined areas, each state definitely has its own feel and individuated character. You try telling someone from Louisiana that they’re similar to Texas, or likewise Texas to Arizona or New Mexico. Sometimes I pass through hyper-state-of-the-art complexes and gorgeously landscaped gardens or fountains, and sometimes I pass through snug little villages where one feels that the only change is that coke started coming in plastic bottles, instead of glass. Similarly, the demographics and racial blends switch up hugely depending on where you are, as well as the nationality of the original settlers. The resultant cultures are therefore, in this nation of immigrants, highly tinctured with who happened to get there first, and who followed hot on their heels.

The second, titantically unmissable thing about America is the strength here of business, capital, and capitalism. I’ve mentioned here and there in my posts about the television adverts, the slight sense of hysteria that thrums through the public psyche, the influence of special interest groups and the overwhelming amount of information and misinformation that is slingshotted through the air in all directions, to be eaten up and spat out by the scrolling 24-hour news networks. Everyone has a cause, everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to be heard.

This is a Good Thing. It’s valuable to democracy. But boy, is it loud. Coming back to the decidedly more sangfroid England I actually experienced a sort of reverse culture shock. It’s so calm here. Where are the giant billboards? Why can I watch TV uninterrupted for an hour? Who’s sponsoring this? Where’s the visual stimulus, guys, come on, you’re missing a trick here! It’s as vivid a contrast as I can paint it – though who knows, things might change very soon. Some dickhead genius at Channel 4 already hit on the idea of copying the American strategy of throwing up an advert directly after the opening credits.

The inevitable result of this, of course, is the rife consumerism that is absolutely everywhere. Americans consume triple the amount of resources of the UK per capita, who in turn are the greediest hogs in Europe, chowing down on about 50% more resource than France. So when it is said that everything is bigger in America – and it is – that includes everything. Cars, refrigerators, buildings, televisions – everything. Well, everything except petrol. It’s a balancing act that one can’t help feel is of limited life expectancy. I don’t see how such luxury can go on against a rising petrochemicals price. But again, we shall see.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling Americans bad people for this. It’s a culture, it’s how the US is brought up to see things – just laid out in front of it. It’s very difficult to start thinking in a different way, especially when everything is made so easy for you. I won’t lie, the environmentalist (and a bit of the humanist) in me dies a little when it sees something like Vegas, but who knows? Most of the energy use is by heavy industry like titanium manufacturing, which takes 12 cells per process, each of which could power the entire of Vegas for a week. Even if the people of America and the western world could reduce their consumerism (again, I’m certainly not saying it’s endemic to just the states), you’d really need to tackle industry… but I’m getting eco-political, and who wants that?

Whatever your gripes about it, American consumerism and the capitalism that stokes it gives the country a very unique character. I’ve certainly seen more inventive and funny adverts here than anywhere else, and there’s a real drive to win that gives, for example, the tours I’ve been on here a great level of quality. There is a sense that anyone can make it, no matter what the norm of reality might dictate, and no matter what opposition you face. It is inextricable from the people and the country is in turn rooted in it. The American dream, indeed.

The third thing about America is the space. The space. My word. I’ll let you handle that one because my head is still spinning from the fact it only took two hours to reach the south coast from here. What better way to remind me I’m home, than to get back to our tiny (metric!) scale?

Home. Lots of sayings about that. Home is where you hang your hat; home is where the heart is. Home is a roaring fire, or a hot meal, or your boss’s wife between the hours of four and six.

But really, I would say home is what you make of it; home is where you are. And I’m itching to leave home, but that’s okay, because I’ll be going home. Heck, it’ll be a home away from home. And if I get homesick I could always go home, not that I get homesick – being home as I am. And really, why should I be?

After all, there’s no place like home.

1 Response to “E Pluribus Unum”

  1. 1 Renée 04/10/2009 at 7:41 pm

    This entry is a lovely summation. It’s been quite interesting seeing America from your perspective. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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