Monday, 6 April 2009

‘Huntin’ bucks and drivin’ trucks’ - So Long, Uncle Sam

American lad: "I like the way you roll your r's"
Scottish lassie: "Why thank you, it must be my high heels"
(As told by an elderly American gentleman)

A deep red sun set behind the skyscrapers of downtown Philadelphia as the good ship M/V Rickmers Singapore sailed past, heading down the Delaware River and out to sea. We were leaving the US.

I stood out on deck and thought back to the last few months during which we’ve travelled across this huge country, from the coast of California to the docks of Philadelphia.

It’s taken us over 5,500 miles, through seventeen different states, from the Tex-Mex border to New England, from the Deep South to the Midwest.

When we first arrived I was slightly apprehensive, recalling the disappointments of my previous visit in 2001. In particular I remembered the dominance of the corporates, the chains who seem to have taken over many a place, steamrollering over the local features and quirks which give a town or region it’s own identity, the differences which that add up to make it unique, distinct and of particular interest to the visitor.

Riding the Greyhound along the interstate it was easy to think that the whole nation had succumbed to this, the view dominated by an endless procession of chain motels and identikit burger chains. It could have been anywhere, Maine, Missouri or New Mexico. Same, same, same.

Yet off the highway it was a very different story. For there is not one America, of course, there are many, and exploring the variety on offer, discovering these different worlds with their own distinct identities has been a great pleasure, full of adventure and surprises.

We have wondered at amazing landscapes, from the saguaro-studded deserts of Arizona to the frozen lakes of Minnesota, from the mountains of Tennessee to the swamps of Louisiana.

We’ve walked in pristine national parks bursting with biodiversity; we’ve seen wild turkeys, eagles and beavers; and visited both the start and the end of the Mississippi, one of the great rivers of the world.

We’ve been wowed by the cities, from the French quarter of New Orleans to the East Village of New York, the fine skyscrapers of Chicago to the history streets of Boston. We’ve watched Ibsen in Minneapolis and viewed Monet in Chicago; we’ve hung with hipsters in Austin and hobos in Nashville.

We’ve partied at Mardi Gras and slept in Liz Taylor’s old Hollywood home; we’ve drunk moonshine with rednecks and basked in homemade hot tubs under the stars.

We’ve ridden the Greyhound and the lonesome railroad; we’ve sped in a Porsche down in Texas, and paddled a canoe in North Carolina.

We’re taken a musical odyssey and found great sounds galore, from street jazz in New Orleans to blues in Chicago. There was zydeco in Jackson and country in Nashville, rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis and mountain music in the Smokies. We found polka in Minneapolis and Motown in Detroit; visited Elvis’s Graceland home and found Johnny Cash‘s last resting place.

We’ve tried burgers and fries, hash browns and links; kolaches, knish and Vietnamese pho; beignets and gumbo, po-boys and crawfish; collard greens and cornbread, black-eyed peas and BBQ ribs.

And there were ramps and catfish, walleye and wild rice; clam chowder, lobster bisque and buffalo wings; Philly cheese steaks, doughnut holes and pretzels; food from a dumpster and acres of pizza.

We’ve washed it down with a wide range of beers, many local, all delicious. We supped Dogfish in Boston, Dead Guy in LA, Honkers in Chicago, Summit in Minnesota, Lone Star in Texas; Abita in Louisiana; Yazoo in Nashville, Yards in Philadelphia...

We’ve lived through a thousand films, the quintessentially American: paper bags for your ’groceries’; steam escaping from vents in city streets; stoops and fire escapes on brownstone buildings; bow-tied academics on Harvard campus; white picket fences and red hip roof barn; state troopers and police cruisers; huge firetrucks and burly heroes; yellow traffic lights hanging on wires; ‘city limits’ signs on the edge of town; neat clapboard houses with a basketball hoop in the front yard; workshirts with name badges on; people with the ‘Jr’ suffix; retro-style diners…

But it was the people of course, which stick in the memory. There’s been the good, the bad and the quite clearly mad.

Thanks to our common language, our shared history and perhaps most of all the wonders of couch surfing, we have been able to get closer to Americans than people in other countries and nearer to finding out what makes this huge country tick.

We’ve stayed with nurses and hipsters, Spanish surgeons and Argentinean biochemists, musicians and teachers, students and stock market traders.

They’ve put us up everywhere, from bordello-themed rooms down in New Orleans to log cabins high in the mountains; from terraced houses out in the suburbs to crash pads in the middle of downtown. We’ve slept on couches and mattresses, floors and even a massage table.

We’ve made friends with strangers who’ve welcomed us to their town, memorable characters such as Wers-leh ‘White Lightnin’ the blues guitarist’, ‘Durl’ the bus driver MC and ‘Mow-reece’ the tram driver, who just digged my boots.

They’ve come from all backgrounds: rich and poor, vegan and carnivore, Democrat and Republican (‘you‘re liberal?! Get outta my house!’). There’s been hippies and hawks, rednecks and poets, veterans and protestors, gay, straight, black, white and all shades in between.

We’ve met Mexican labourers and Chinese chefs, Baptist preachers and Vietnamese microbiologists, tatooed ex-cons and Senegalese cabbies, Native American croupiers and Cajun waiters, drugstore cowboys and Puerto Rican plumbers, whooping frat boys and rednecks in Dodge Rams, ‘huntin’ bucks and drivin’ trucks’, flying the Southern Cross.

Given this range of backgrounds it should be hard to define what being an American is - you could ask them and they’d never be short of an answer. Perhaps therein lies the actual answer, for we found that Americans always have questions and are never too shy to express their own opinions.

There’s little English reticence here, and perhaps a greater certainty in their beliefs. Opinions are often more polarised and on controversial issues it seems never the twain shall meet: abortion, same-sex marriage, the right to bear arms...

I found the latter particularly difficult to understand: on several occasions I was shocked to discover the nice, sane person we were travelling or staying with was packing a piece. ‘Because I need to protect myself,’ I was told. From what? Other people with guns?

I just bit my tongue. Coming from a mild, rather phlegmatic country I find it hard to comprehend such a mentality. There are some issues I guess where we will have to agree to disagree.

There were benefits to being English here though and after several months of enjoying American’s most generous hospitality I can no longer argue that the ‘special relationship’ is purely one-way. We have often been quite overwhelmed by people’s kindness where people would go out of their way to help or to offer advice to someone from ‘the old country‘.

Many a time a local would prick up their ears upon hearing our English accents and soon the questions would start flowing, from the usual about the royals, the weather and the Beckhams, to those about the UK economy, their favourite British bands and how I sounded like Hugh Grant.

I learnt a great deal from these little encounters, and gained a real insight into people’s everyday lives, the lives that make up America. They seemed to enjoy this too, such as the fellow in a Mississippi sub shop who insisted on stumping me my meal in exchange for a natter.

And here I would sway between loving and loathing, buzzing on the good points but perplexed by the bad.

There’s still things there I find hard to understand: an obsession with the big and the energy-intensive; the gross disparities between rich and poor; a blind obedience to the flag and an unquestioning reverence for ‘patriots’; a poor public transport infrastructure (in some places non-existent); rampant obesity and the fast food culture...

But one thing stood out here above all else here: religion. It seems that in America the zealots shout louder. I lost count of the number of signs I saw warning that we were ‘all going to hell’ or the amount of insane rants I heard on the radio.

There’s a sizeable portion in this country who subscribe to this, and are not afraid to show themselves. We came across them throughout the land.

Back in New Orleans they stood out in Bourbon Street, amidst the maelstrom of drunks and debauchery with their hellfire grimaces and their placards of sinners: ‘sports nuts’, ‘pencil neck weak kneed gutless men’, ‘rebellious women’, ‘witches’, ‘pot smoking little devils’ and, bizarrely ‘used car dealers’. Come on now, you can’t condemn Frank Butcher…

It all left me aghast and disturbed. How did this happen? ‘Well what did we expect?’ one American said to me, ‘after all you sent over all the puritans‘.

He had a point, and I guess for every Thomas Paine and William Penn there must have been a boatload of religious nutters seeking a new land where they could express their free opinion (or empty their guns into armadillos).

Back then it was a land of opportunity and today it still struck me as such - a land where, if you go for it, you really can ‘make it’. The ‘American dream’ lives on, and millions still come here in search of a better life.

It’s a ‘can-do’ culture where people work hard and seem less likely to say ‘no’. It never took us much effort to enter a new place and find someone who could fix our laptop or give us a ride to another town.

Standards of living seem generally higher and for many life is comfortable. Or should I say was, until the economic bubble burst.
Perhaps they grew too comfortable and complacent as the world’s top dog; certainly many are now learning the hard way that economic fortunes can go down as well as up.

Can they turn this around? Of course they can, and they’ve got a nice fresh young chap at the top who they hope can do just this. Returning to the US, just after Obama took power we felt a
palpable wave of relief amongst the people we met.

‘Hope‘. It's a good slogan for the US.

I hope to return myself one day. Keep the cheesesteaks warm.

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