Posts Tagged 'Musings'

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.

End of part three

With the west coast at my back, I find myself facing the long haul back towards the sunrise and the east coast – and home.

The west coast has been a hugely interesting experience, very different to the south, which in turn was very different from the Appalachia/south-east region. I covered most of the elements that I found new in the California post, but Portland and Seattle have their own (slightly damper, colder) personalities too. As I said, there’s this sort of assurance to the north-west. The youthful, freewheeling personality of California turns into a somewhat more reserved and adult – but still essentially liberal – area that is supremely self-confident and a touch elitist. Not that I think that’s necessarily a bad thing at all. The northwest reminds me of Britain, in fact, more than anywhere else I’ve been and it’s not just the weather. I like it here. Santa Barbara and Seattle are both places I could imagine spending a stint of time in, maybe a couple of years, in a couple of years. Who knows? The future is an interesting place.

Tangent: By the way, the Seattle Art Museum is pretty great, and free on thursdays. It has some mesmerizing glasswork, a couple of fantastic pieces by Nick Cave (the artist, not the singer, though they share a similar mental aesthetic), and a brilliantly-done main exhibit, currently about destruction in art. Really good. No photography allowed, however.

The last day of PAX was short but sweet, the outstanding moment for me being the three-times ascent onto the big stage to play Beatles Rock Band, for which I joined forces with job from waaaay back in West Virginia (so long ago!), the sadly illiterate devlEric (<3), whom I will see again in Minneapolis, and Arminas, who I will be visiting in Chicago. The songs were Can't Buy Me Love, HelloGoodbye, and I Feel Fine. Ominously, Snappy was on scene to diligently record all these endeavours, and I will fortunately/unfortunately have videos to post later. I'll edit them into this post and link back to them when they are in my hot-handed possession.

As it happens, I have kind of said most of what I had on my mind during this leg of the trip, so instead of repeating myself, I will turn my attention forward. Irritatingly, I missed the bus this morning because it was unexpectedly full and I had no way of getting a ticket earlier – despite efforts to – due to various debilitating policies operated by the company. So, I am an extra day in Washington, and a day cut short in Yellowstone. No matter; I shall survive.

The area I'm headed to/through is commonly collectively called the Flyover States. It's apparently a whole lotta nothin'. I'm hoping that the batteries on my various electronic amusements remain in the green for a long time though, as this Yayhound trip is a stonking twenty-seven hours in length. Fun times. I’m hoping however that, once off the bus and the dreary tameness of the main roads, I will stand a chance to catch some of the more majestic scenery that I associate with – at least in my head – the evergreen north of America.

Plus I am dead chuffed to be able to wear warm clothes again.

Enough prattle. Here’s the third album, with a few as-yet-unposted highlights:






















To the east!

California, n. (kælɨˈfɔrnjə)

‘Oh, when I’m abroad, I don’t say I’m from America,’ my busmate told me, ‘I say I’m from California‘. She waited a moment and then added, bashfully, ‘it helps’.

Breezy, affluent, liberal and pancultural, California has been a unique experience in my travels. It’s not hard to see why it’s the most populous state in the nation, with its gorgeous weather, beautiful scenery and easy charm, but it’s more than that. It’s just an opinion, but coming to California feels like I’m stepping forward in time. Not only are the politics here progressive and forward thinking – for example, the state is internationally renowned for its environmental policies – but the food is healthier, the portions are sensible, the people more energetic, active, and technologically savvy. Gender consciousness, gay rights and feminism are all at strength here, as are more socialist ideals pertaining to healthcare and economic justice. The liberalism of the people is not one of anything-goes apathy, either: in Las Vegas, people don’t care what you do. Here, people just don’t mind. Crucial difference. Several times I’ve seen people here, when challenged, rise calmly but firmly to the occasion – but so long as it’s not affecting them, most don’t seem to think that what other people do is much of their business.

Alongside this is an incredibly easygoing culture (and you’re never far away from the rich aroma of cannabis). I thought the south would be pretty laid back – and don’t get me wrong, it is in areas – but it was actually a lot more stressed-out than I had imagined. Inversely, I thought California might be full of OC-style self-absorbed myopics, but I’ve found a people distinctly broad in their styles of thought. Folks will usually be up for a conversation, on any matter.

All this results in a state that feels more like a different country than a part of the rest of the US, and most Californians I’ve spoken to seem to feel the same way. Of the coast, San Francisco is (I believe) the most cultured, well-to-do bastion of intellectualism, which isn’t too surprising given that the liberal stronghold of Berkley, which I explored yesterday with Raslin, is just off the bay. The other areas in CA still however possess the same unique sort of character, to different degrees.

Maybe the post title should be a verb, instead of a noun. To California. Such is the sense of shared cultural priorities I get here.

Naturally it’s not all roses, and like I said, homelessness in San Francisco is just one of the problems I’ve seen here, but I leave the cities of the state with the impression that the rest of America might have a little bit of catching up to do.

My opinions, of course, are my own.

Castle in the clouds

Firstly, apologies, but as usual (for hostels) there is no way to upload pictures. I’m due to meet up with Raslin tomorrow and he has a laptop, so I may be able to solve that particular problem then.

Yesterday I arrived in San Fran via the eastern bridge in the middle of the afternoon – except you wouldn’t know it was the afternoon. Instead, as we drove over the still waters, the city and its turrets were swamped in a thick mist, the looming silhouettes shifting enigmatically. Very surreal – T.S. Eliot’s famous ‘unreal cities’ came to mind. Or Silent Hill.

As I arrived, the slumbering city seemed to wake up; at street level visibility is much clearer and the fresh bite in the air was a more than welcome relief to my British bones. Somehow the city felt very familiar, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s just a matter of climate, but it seemed as though this was a real, old city, that has grown over time – like that keystone of my own urban ideals, London. Dominating skyscrapers towered extraordinarily high, but down at gutter level the streets seemed a little on the smaller side, a little more personal, a little more dirty. I suppose there’s not much room on this small island for wide boulevards. Personally I thought it made the place much more engaging.

The brisk walk to the hostel was just the tonic for a soporific nine-hour bus journey that saw us cross through the scenic coastal routes. The landscape couldn’t seem to make up its mind: here it was a seaside spectacular, here golden vineyards rolled away over hills, and here was a winding mountain road smothered in pine. A break from the monotony of the Arizona/New Mexico area roads with their trampled sierras – but the sky had shrunk back to its normal size. A trade-off.

The hostel itself is capacious and newly-renovated and a superb place to stay if you’re here, which probably explains its slightly heftier-than-usual price-tag. But still, I was put in the dead centre of my new surroundings, with City Hall a matter of minutes away. There’s a heavy Vietnamese presence in the immediate area, and in general asian culture clearly has strong footholds here, as in LA and San Diego.

I pretty much immediately went a-walking, as I am wont to do, and unfortunately the first thing that struck me was how many homeless people there are here.

One thing I’ve noticed here is that America is more vicious to its poor than anywhere else I’ve seen in the first world. Job security seems weak and the net of social security has a lot of holes. The amount of people I’ve talked to, for example, who have no healthcare is incredible. Especially as frequently they are actually working. But I think healthcare is another post. On this matter of homelessness, I’ve seen a lot of people in the streets in America, again more than any other first-world country I’ve been to. There’s so many that it’s small wonder people seem so much more scared over here. I’m not one to often be intimidated, but more than a few times so far on my trip I’ve shoved my head into my metaphorical shell and quickened my pace. Crime frequently isn’t so much done by bad people as desperate people, and there are a lot of desperate people in plain view. Not just beggars and homeless folks sitting on cardboard beds in knocked-out doorways, but also people who are quite clearly not all there – talking to themselves; wandering half naked; clutching at their bodies; I’ve seen all of these. And yes, it’s frightening and yes, you wonder if you’re safe and yes, I can see why people don’t walk the streets at night. I’m not saying it’s unique to America, of course it’s not, but it does seem far more prevalent here than in other countries. All I can do is speculate why.

Today, I went out for a deliberately long walk. Taking a circuitous route through most of the north side of the city, I swung by almost every landmark I could fit in. It took seven and a half hours and was a lot of fun, but I hadn’t realized that the lovely cold misty weather I had yesterday wouldn’t hold. In short, I am now thoroughly sunburnt. I don’t know – I go through the entire south and the worst I get is a light red frosting at the Grand Canyon, and then I get sunburnt at the most temperate climate I’ve been in yet. More fool me. I hope it fades in time for PAX.

I started out by hiking up (and I mean hiking; San Francisco has comically steep hills, and one suspects for much of the time that someone is having a bit of a joke at your expense) the unfortunately named Nob Hill – seriously, right next to ‘Tenderloin?’ – and through the tacky bonanza of Chinatown with its insane tourist shops, lined with $200 kimonos and $20 katanas. San Fran’s Chinatown is big and loud and a lot of fun, with plenty of cheap food for the gourmet and a mixture of sublime and terrible souveniers. I then turned on to Broadway with its strip joints and clubs, went all the way to the pier, followed the seafront north and around to the Golden Gate bridge (sadly completely unphotogenic today; I’ll look again tomorrow), and finally traveled back southeast through the crazed up-and-down streets to the hostel.

San Francisco is a very picturesque place with absolutely gorgeous houses. The rich here can’t move out of town unless they fancy living on a boat or in Alcatraz, so they make up for it by constructing these towering, four-storey mini-mansions, painted in bright yellows and blues. I wondered if perhaps this was for the same reasons as the buildings in St. Petersburg: they paint the houses in a bid to combat the heavy marsh fog and overcast skies. Either way, it’s easy to wander into almost any street and find one of these lovingly-crafted edifices, and they are criminally photogenic. I’ve taken far too many pictures of them.

The city itself is, well, hilly, with lots of people both on foot and in cars, and criss-crossed by its famous tram network. It’s hard work to get around, but rewarding. You find things in the oddest places – like Grace Cathedral, tucked away in the shadow of several taller buildings, lurking in its grey webbing. There’s an indeterminate but clear sense of culture here. That is to say, I don’t think anyone could tell me what San Fran is, but whatever it is it’s definitely that. Which makes for frustrating times writing this post, but hey.

I’ll just finish with a word on the piers. This is where Otis Redding wrote his most famous song (if you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know), and although Pier 39 is the tourist area, with its gaudy self-branding, its sourdough loafs and the hundreds-strong colony of braying seals that decided in 1990 it would be a jolly good idea to take over half the jetty, I myself preferred the quiet and preserved ones to the south. No gimmicks, no shops, just a series of ancient planks leading out into the sea, where old men in baseball caps cast their fishing lines and swap stories. The bay spreads before you and the east bridge runs off into the salinated air. If you close your eyes a little, it’s not too hard to imagine it: just sitting here, wasting time.

Update #2: Flagstaff

You know, I was walking along today at the Grand Canyon, on the rim walk of the southern lip, and I was thinking: how the hell do I describe this?

Let me start where I left off. I traveled by bus from New Mexico to Flagstaff, Arizona. On the bus was the usual assortment of backpackers, crazies, and this time a nine-year-old black kid called Patrick.

Patrick liked Pokémon. Patrick liked Pokémon a great deal. We spoke at length about the merits of status effects, psychic types, how the safari zone sucked and how it was going to be super cool when he finally got a DS. He demonstrated to me how he really did want to catch them all, and I realized he was playing a game that I played before he was even born. We got on famously.

But Patrick also saddened me a bit too. He was a phenomenally bright kid, naturally braggadocio, quick to intuition and capable of understanding fairly complex things. But from time to time he would say things like, ‘I mean I act tough. ‘Cause I gotta act tough, ’cause if you don’t,’ he shook his head knowingly, ‘they gonna kick the shit outta you’. Later he was talking about how all life had value and that he didn’t like criminals. I said that sooner or later it always caught up with them, and he nodded thoughtfully and said, ‘especially gang bangers, they get the electric chair’, then an expressive buzzing sound. He then asked me if I liked Piloswine.

That’s a pretty old head for someone so young. It saddened me to hear him talk of people giving up on school at his age, and how he was held back a year because he just stopped caring and so did his teachers. You have to wonder whether this bright young kid, with such promise, is going to be properly served by his education.

I arrived at Flagstaff yesterday. It’s a pretty, peaceful mountain town with a deliciously cool climate after the pressure cookers of Texas and Louisiana. Pine trees dot the slopes of the rocky hills and there’s a generally quiet and rustic air to the streets. I’ll be looking more around it tomorrow, so I’ll expound then.

I want to talk about the Canyon, but like I said at the start, I just don’t think I have particularly adequate words. And I’m running out of time. So, that will have to wait until tomorrow when I shall post the collective efforts of my photography, hopefully to your liking.

Pictures paint a thousand words, but is that going to be enough?

Small Town America, Inc.

I’m sitting in a lounge in Abilene watching Josh’s dog. He is called Napoleon. He’s currently sleeping on top of the back of a sofa and making silly noises in his doggy dreams. I’m kind of waiting for him to fall off.

After catching up on my sleep, I spent yesterday lounging around the house and chatting away, then Josh came home and we went out to get some Thai food. It had fresh vegetables, which I found to my surprise I had really missed. Shipping produce across 900 miles of land is a bit of a task, I guess. Later, we booked seats in Perini’s, which has a legitimate claim to Best Burgers in America. Controversial stuff, but their website is very pretty, isn’t it? Incidentally, last night I played through Braid and you should too. Great game.

Today, I ventured out on bike to see what I could see of this quiet Texas settlement.

Abilene is a small, well-to-do town of leafy streets and white picket fences. The downtown area doesn’t hold much apart from an old Paramount cinema from back in the day when the major companies owned their own screens, and a smattering of bars. I couldn’t spend much time there though, as we had to get to Perini’s. The place was good, but had kinda poor service. And I gotta say, the best burgers I’ve had have been in tiny little places in Atlanta and San Antonio, the latter being barely a spec on the road by a railway.

On the way back we stopped in a minute village called Buffalo Gap (presumably to go with Moose Factory and Pigeon Forge). It’s a charming place with a population of about 430 people (and six tumbleweeds), full of secret avenues, old oak trees, rusted-up machinery and swaying grasses. There’s a lot of small, curious-looking shops and shacks, and but for more time and better light, I would have happily spent several hours wandering around. It really was very beautiful; this area of Texas is surprisingly verdant, with a generous water table. The towns aren’t perfect – we passed a crack house in Abilene – but they’re small, reserved, and peaceful.

This is Real America™ ®Sarah Palin Patriotic Holdings Co. ©2008. I can’t say however that it’s much different from the rest of America when it comes to what matters, and though political leanings, religious beliefs and the idiosyncrasies of mannerisms that vary from state to state lend each area I’ve been to their own distinct micro-cultures, there’s no denying it: what have I seen everywhere I’ve gone? The same basic human decency, the same love for life, the same respect for others and the kindness of strangers. Though responses range from ‘we’re the richest country in the world, we shouldn’t have people dying in the streets’, to ‘who says you have the right to healthcare?’, and though there’s a heck of a stronger church presence down here than up north, and though the north treats the south with superciliousness and the south treats the north with scorn and though sometimes you get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, everything is about to explode

Life carries on. Good people are good. And if you talk to people you might find out, for instance, that a great deal of the south’s anti-Big Government attitude is significantly due to their local politics being a corrupt mess (mind you, one girl did also tell me, somewhat coyly, ‘we want all the freedoms we can possibly have, even those that aren’t good for us’). There are reasons why people think things and, easy as it is to do, grouping people into Red and Blue is just silly. I’ve spoken to oil rig workers, commercial divers, healthcare insurance people, programmers, nurses, students, parents, and everything in between. People are just people like you, and such. Even as Wallmarts rise up through the turf and adverts everywhere pressure you to buy, buy, buy, everywhere I’ve been has had the same basic principals. America hasn’t lost anything of its soul.

End of part one

So, it’s two in the morning and I’m sitting in my underwear in a flat in Baton Rouge.

Look, it’s really hot, okay?

Anyways, just before I set out, I took another look at my route (check out the mileage!), and decided that there were some fairly clear demarcations to be observed. Five, in fact. This is the end of the first.

Time for some reflection.

Thus far, America has been close to my expectations in many ways. Ideas I had about its scenery, demeanor, passions and fears have shown themselves to be much similar to what I’ve seen. But there has been a capacity to surprise as well. The underlying sense I get, irrespective of who I talk to or what views they may hold, is actually one of constant, low-level crisis. Everything seems to be a bit of a battleground here, some more serious than others. But whether it’s sports teams or states rights, it’s a zero-sum world. All or nothing. My side, your side. And God help you if you switch sides, because everything is always about to go catastrophically wrong, and so much is at stake.

In a way, I love it. I love that people over here have ideas and causes and commitments. The currency of enthusiasm has seemed long devalued back home, and whilst that might arguably lead to a more level-headed approach to things, there’s a sense that politics and beliefs and aims are something that happens to other people, which is why we get neo-nazi white supremacists elected to the European Parliament. The Britain I know is not one where one in ten people want to sink immigrant boats with the immigrants still in them, but when turnout is at 33% due to apathy, the zealots are going to get a bigger slice. At least that’s not a problem here.

Anyway, enough of politics. It extends beyond that. Almost every American I’ve talked to has some kind of passion or raison d’etre in their life, and that’s tremendously… well, gratifying. Maybe I’ve talked to a really unrepresentative sample in the UK, or here, but back home so many people just don’t seem to care. The contrast is noticeable.

Elsewhere, there’s been a much bigger emphasis on food than I had expected. Perhaps I should have seen that coming (it’s a joke!), but the tradition of the diner is something interesting to me. I will gladly confess that up until about 2000, England had really bad food. We’re better now, honest. But because we never really established a culinary tradition outside of the greasy back-ends of chip butties and Very Questionable Pies, we didn’t develop the idea of ‘quality’ everyday food. America did. I’ve eaten at a tonne of diners now, and whilst there is a certain (if often only slight) processed, mass-produced feel to even the most gourmet fare, it’s undeniably tasty stuff, and you sure get a lot of it. In the Mariatta Diner, Atlanta, $13 bought me a chicken and spaghetti dish where the ethos apparently involved taking a whole chicken and pounding it flat, then frying it. Twice. It was so much that I had to take half of it home in a polystyrene box, which I have learnt is a common thing over here, and did I mention it came with a complimentary bowl of soup and a weird little feta-cheese-puff-pasty-parcel-with-spinach-I’m-not-quite-sure-what-it-was?

A lot of bang for your collective buck, that’s for sure. And of course, in the south they take things like this seriously. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Twenty-pound steaks on fire off a 2000C grill. I watched french fries sizzle in the pan near a bucketful of liquid cheese. All those calories will be lost in time, like fat in oil. Time to eat.

You better have got that reference.

Anyway, what else… people are friendly. I heard folks say down here that people in, say, Philadelphia, are jerks. And it’s true I’m sadly missing New England and I won’t get to sample the legendary philanthropic delights of Boston etc., but I gotta say I think we’re operating on a different standard. People are much more ready to talk here. I mean, unlike in England, you can make an observation without fear that you’re going to be glared at, run away from and or punched. It means I’ve talked to a bunch of strangers whilst travelling, and gleaned a whole heap of interesting anecdotes, information and other titbits that I only wish I had the time to transcribe in full. For each story I’ve told you, I’ve missed a dozen others. Someday we shall sit around the campfire and talk as men.

However, I’ve gone on far too long now. 45 minutes have passed since I started the post, and I promised you all some media. So, I hope you, uh, enjoy these little moments I’ve tried to capture and not had a chance to show you before. Here’s the link to the hi-res album, where you can find more.

The first leg of my trip is over.











Goin’ South

Firstly, a quick mea culpa to anyone I may have riled up regarding yesterday’s post. I didn’t mean to imply anything along the lines of places not having a sense of community or similar. Rather, I was trying to point out the differences in the planning ethos evident between America, which as a couple of people have since said is designed for the car, and other cities I’ve been to in the world.


‘You’re going South?’ The lady in the Constitution Museum looked at me sceptically over her glasses, then gave me a wry grin. ‘The South is uh… interesting’. If I weren’t already in the South, being as I am in Tennessee, I’m about to be. In a few hours time I’ll be heading on another Greyhound to Atlanta, Georgia.

I’ve talked to a lot of people already on the trip, and when the South does eventually rise, it’s often been treated with either a fond exasperation, a tentative diplomacy, or in a couple of cases outright hostility. Much like a younger brother. And, like a younger brother, what I’ve heard from quite a few southerners is a mix of denials of any wrongdoing and a quiet pride at the notoriety.

The Red-State-Blue-State ‘Culture Wars’ are well documented and discussed, and used to great effect as distractions by local politicians (one southern politician had a platform that included three almost identical pieces of anti-homosexual legislation, presumably in case just one somehow failed to change their minds), but although it’s true that I can’t move here in TN for churches, and yesterday I saw my first ever religious graffiti, sequentially:
“God Loves Music”
“Sheep go to heaven but Satan goes to hell!”
“No talk of Satan!
BE SAVED _ _ _ _
REPENT _ _ _ _”

Which kind of boggled the mind a bit (it being graffiti, I mean). But although there is already a noticeably different culture here, not just religiously speaking, to what I saw up north, I’m of the camp that says most people do hold the same fundamental values, and personally I’m withholding on the stereotypes until I see evidence to the contrary.

But hey, it’s going to be interesting whatever happens.

Especially as a Godless Liberal European nancy-boy.

United States of Ambivalence

So, I’ve been here for nine days now.

My friend Eben said I’d get nervous, just before I went. I said I wouldn’t. And, actually… I didn’t. But a sort of unease has caught up with me. Could it be… homesickness?

‘I don’t get homesick’ – that’s my answer usually. I’ve never been a person who likes to stay where he is, and there’s certainly no love lost between myself and my tiny hometown, Northampton. Yet more and more, after six hundred and thirty miles, I find myself thinking, ‘this isn’t like England’.

And of course it’s not. And that’s fine. And there’s really a lot I love about America so far and I am having a great time. But I tell you what: it’s pretty easy to feel a creeping sense of alienation setting in. Let me explain what I mean.

Firstly, the towns are inside-out. If you’ve not been to America, you might assume as I did that the towns and cities would work in much the same ways as ours: a central hub of shops, bars, cafés etc., with a distinct business district and then housing spreading out around the both of them. Not so. Instead, all that’s at the centre of towns that I’ve seen so far are skyscrapers and business headquarters, with maybe one or two places to get a drink or sandwich. The usual urban terracing that we’re used to basically doesn’t exist in any recognizable form; instead the town is fringed with suburb after suburb after suburb. It must be because there’s so much space. For instance, in Knoxville where I am at the minute, the suburban sprawl goes on for about twenty miles. In comparison, Leicester might be about six or seven across, and that’s being generous.

So because there’s no people feeding into the city, there’s no point building lots of shops or places to eat there. The one exception I’ve found so far is Philadelphia’s South Street, which is a shopping street in the European mold. But generally speaking, you can’t ‘go into town’ in the same way that we mean it.

So where are all the stores and eateries? Well, they’re scattered throughout the massive business parks that crop up everywhere on the periphery. But this has two very obvious effects. Firstly, you have to drive everywhere. You cannot – literally cannot – just walk around as we might walk around town. You go to this place for these shops, by car, and then drive to this place for that shop – and there’s no point looking anywhere else because of the second effect: all the shops are the same. I’ve covered, like I said, over 600 miles by now, and I can tell you, for a country that’s supposed to be all about choice, there’s precious little of it. Okay, so a ‘Giant’ might become a ‘Peebles’ depending on your region, but they’re the same kind of shop. Independent shops are precious few and far between, and that’s understandable – how could they possibly compete in these business parks where the first thing you have to do is build your own gigantic store? The same with eateries; I’ve seen almost nothing but Arbys, Wendys, McDonalds, etc. Almost all places to eat I’ve seen so far are chains of some description.

So yes, the shopping park in Wilmington was the same as in Baltimore as in West Virgninia… and I see no reason to think that’s going to change. The shops remain the same, and apparently malls are seeing a big decline here, so in the near future it seems that the recipe of Get in car, Drive to stores, Shop, Drive home again will be the only option. And like I said, those shops are becoming an increasingly select and homogeneous few. In Roanoke, D. Chong was explaining to me how Radio Shack, an electronics chain, described its business models to employees.

‘They’re really aggressive,’ he said as we leaned on the railing of an overlook. ‘The manager once said that they defined market saturation as being within five miles of any given consumer’. He gestured at the town below. ‘They’re everywhere’.

It’s really pretty alienating. Everyone lives in their bubbles. The towns do organize events, but to me, compared to Europe, there’s no sense of a town. Even Milton Keynes, our (in)famous grid city, has shopping and eating at its commercial centre, and has some sort of character, if limited. Here? I don’t know. And I don’t think I like that all that much.

Other Blogs

Click Here

The Entries

The States:

The Mob

  • 27,156 hits