Out on the Razzle in America

United Kingdom
Freelance writer, literary graduate and minor lad. In America for pleasure, not business. I've never been before, so I thought I should. Should I have done it all at once? Can it all be done at once? Only one way to find out...

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Black Hills, badass cowboys, big boring heads and Bison.

There is a transition from plains to mountain foothills in South Dakota. The transition takes place in the Black Hills, dark, pine-topped ridges in the eastern part of the state, home to Custer State Park and its bison herd, Mount Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse memorial. The effect of the transition is all the more spectacular if it occurred while you were sleeping off three steaks and some whiskey.

Custer State Park is a strange place, where shuffling bison move amongst herds of Harley Davidsons, and bighorn sheep amble up sheer slopes as groups of camera-wielding visitors strain and scramble to snap them before they disappear into the trees.

Descending briefly from the hills, the road to Wyoming takes you through Deadwood, a city of immense wild west notoriety that manages to handle the jobs of tourist trap and genuine National Historical Landmark with equal success. Housing the graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, along with some gambling dens and bars, the town looks like great fun, though we only passed through. Soon after, we passed through Belle Fourche, at the East-West centre of the country. It doesn't look like great fun. It looks very boring. But again, we only passed through.

Strangely, in this landscape are found two of the most interesting single bits of stuff in the country. Mount Rushmore is the image for South Dakota's motto, "Great Faces, Great Places". Well, that and the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is bigger, more expensive, perhaps a bit more impressive, and will take even longer to not be ready. Both though, once seen, are very hard to do anything with, so you end up looking, mumbling, then leaving, perhaps having spent too much on an unnecessary drink or an Indian dreamcatcher.

Now in Wyoming for a spell, the radio choices are limited to classical music, classic rock, or religious rock, while your chances of seeing a non-white are similarly limited, especially if you remain in the towns that revel in the fact that their signs have elevations higher than their population.

You can always go to Gillette, "America's Energy Capital", home to mile-long coal trains, numerous cash for guns pawn stores, and one Chinese restaurant. Or just stay out of towns, and admire the scenery as it fluctuates between sagebrush, methane pumps, and pronghorns. You are best off tuning in to 91.1, forgetting about music or scenery, and getting stuck in to some wholesome religious teaching, such as about "the enemy", pornography, and learn to "defend yourself, your families, and your home from this dangerous animal", "more dangerous than a killer whale". It's no joke, you're far more likely to encounter pornography out here than a killer whale, (it won't get through the computer screen) so it pays to be prepared.

Anyway, cowboys. I spent last night in Cody, Wyoming, home to the famous 7 days a week rodeo. It is stirring stuff indeed, from the Star Spangled Banner sung at the beginning (while two children with flags gallop around the floor), to the three dollar beers and the resulting puns on riding, bellowed from the crowd when the time comes for the ladies' time trials. I volunteered to get amongst the sawdust for the clown's act, and met some actual cowboys with lassoes and everything, before being levitated via some visual trickery by the only clown that has ever sounded as ridiculous as he looked, a deep, gravelly Malboro man with green hair and purple eyes. The bucking broncos and steers are impressive enough, especially when they let off so much steam in the release cage that the rider thinks twice and gets back off again, but the real credit has to go to the two handlers, who ride around the ring, corralling the soon-riderless animals and keeping the show on time, all the while threatening the clown with a lassoing himself.

The rodeo did finish pretty quickly, although, as the saying goes, time flies when you're having rum. Or whisky in this case. The next day we were in Montana, bear country, as the scratch marks around our campsite attested. That and the massive pawprint in the mud. Apparently the best, or rather only, way to outrun a bear is to run across a slope. Easier said than done. After an evening of yeehaws, aww shucks and ahs and oohs, followed by a drinking competition with a man with a voice so husky that only a retard would challenge him or his ex-con friend to a tipple, I doubt I could run across a flat surface. Maybe the zigzags would confuse a bear. Next time, might be better off trying to outrun a beer, as my German travelling companions insist on calling the ursine locals round here. Beers can't run as fast as me, surely.

Whatever happened to the Iron Horse?

For a country that owes so much of its history to the railroad, the USA abandoned the idea pretty quickly when the car arrived. Amtrak serves almost nowhere. There are still horses of course, but no iron ones, which are far more hard-wearing and less prone to colic than their organic counterparts.

America's personal transportation devices are pretty ludicrous, whether it is the vast trucks towing the vast trailers, the vans with 6.7 litre engines and 200 horsepower, the enormous RVs that warp along their axis as they turn bends or the motorbikes. Or motorbike.

There is really only one bike in America, and that is a Harley Davidson, ideally seating two geriatrics in vast seats and with huge antennae curving in the breeze. It is a terrible cliche and a terrible disappointment. There are thousands of Harleys plowing through America. They form the dawn chorus in woodland campsites, as if the birds have upgraded to Second World War fighters, they drone along on every motorway, they creak into every service station. They are wholly, terribly standard. There is only one thing worse than them, and that is the tricycle version. But you have to be really, really old to use that. I really wanted a Harley before I came here, now I could think of nothing less interesting.

Badlands, Cowboys, and the greatest steak in the entire world

In the Badlands, a scar of rough, sandy stone and rock running through South Dakota, every swipe of your boot through the grass sends another wave of locusts, crickets, or grasshoppers. Whatever the jumping creatures are correctly called, the landscape sets an epic contrast to their little hopping lives. Close to the bugs, all you can hear is their buzzing; rise out of the dry grass and climb a ledge and there is no sound, save the occasional tourist helicopter skimming the canyons and buttes. If you spend ten minutes waiting for the clouds to change, the colour of the rock changes with them. Vultures drift overhead. Amongst the buttes are rudimentary fields populated by black cattle. From the mandibles of a four inch grasshopper to the miles of grassland at the foot of a cliff, everything becomes a photograph. Which is annoying, when you are on a hike, miles from anywhere, have run out of water, and want to go home.

Home for the evening was on a cliff overlooking the White River, a winding, creamy line sitting before the pointy bits of the Badlands proper. Setting the tents as far away from the rattlesnake holes that riddled the area, and as close to the edge as was safe after half a bottle of whisky (three to four feet), I started a fire as the sun went down over some unnecessarily dramatic scenery. Fortunately, the site itself was on an Indian reservation and cowboy ranch, and the cowboys themselves had a freezer full of steak, in various shapes, sizes and degrees of marbling. I had three (they were all different, so it made sense to check each out), and all went into the top five steaks I have ever had. There were no cows that I could see on the ranch itself. We may have eaten the last ones.

Essentially, everyone was terribly overstimulated by the whole day, and as some unnecessarily dramatic stars came out and the feeling of seclusion became overwhelmingly exciting, the group became terribly drunk on very limited alcohol and ran from one photo to the next like children on Panda Pops. Axes were flying, the fire was raging, people were laughing and screaming. It was like a lumberjack's fifth birthday. All was good until the meat sweats came, but they were worth it.

Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and the Great Plains

Milwaukee is the home of Miller, "America's greatest beer". The brewery tour was very American, proud and boastful, but there was a hint of irony. At least, I hope there was a hint of irony. Miller is very poor beer, and I would suggest that the Genuine Draft version is actually the worst beer in the world, as it has no characteristic or flavour to actually complain about. It may as well not exist, which makes the idea of paying for it totally ridiculous. We took to referring to the beer with flavour, when "Miller Time" did occur, as Miller Shite. Nice show though, with a germanesque hologram explaining how he was exiled from home / left for the US because he made terrible beer / wanted to make the greatest beer in the world. That was where I saw the irony, though I was looking pretty hard. There is a great art museum in Milwaukee too, with a flapping roof, which is most impressive after several cans of 'Shite.

I camped for a night on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. The group camping next door were Christian missionaries, and their charity extended to giving out some tasty corn on the cob and 'taters, which was jolly nice, even if they did think I was Australian. I didn't really take enough pictures of Wisconsin, but then again, from the interstate, there's not much to see. Just corn. Which is probably why the missionaries had some to spare.

After deciding to forgo the Spam Museum and its "16,500 square feet of SPAM artifacts, history and fun", the only thing to see for me was the road, the charismatic I90, which is like route 66, but far less cool, but does allow for some roadsign reading: "Abortion. The choice that kills", or "The wage of SIN is Death". That, and the picking up of some tasty Bible belt and central country radio stations, as well as classic rock stations that proclaim: "This ain't yo momma's station. Unless you got a really cool momma...". On a road trip such as this, you readily turn to anything for entertainment. According to South Dakota's Traveller Magazine, the average ear of corn has 800 kernels, arranged in 16 rows. Who knew?

On the subject of country music, it is worth taking a thought about the lyrics of the poverty-stricken farmhands, alternating topics between religious conservatism and bumping uglies with a redneck woman behind one's trailer. Taking a recent release: "I got a roof over my head, boots under my feet...got all I need", you get the sense that country music is often a tribute of resigned contentment at having nothing. Listen to other songs though, stating "freedom isn't free...I'm a patriot...on the front line...I am an American soldier", or "where would we be without believers?" and you get the sense of a religious, almost jingoistic war, protecting or spreading freedom. So, religiously conservative farmers and disgruntled, exploited, downtrodden poor folk who revel in their condition to spite those above them. It rings a few Al Qaeda coloured bells.

Most people fight because they want things, why does middle America sing songs about having nothing, living a tough life, disliking those townie folk who use the wealth of America's workers, but not really wanting to rebel or complain? It is very strange to experience, perhaps they are happy enough because they have America, and that will do, regardless of the disparity between the complaint of country music and the smug projection of capitalism and all its trappings. Nevertheless, hearing country music espousing the mission to go yonder with your Patriot gun and its Freedom bullets does make you think.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Chicago, good enough to deserve a post on its own

Chicago is awesome. It has to be, the other cities worth considering visiting don't need to keep up appearances; you could hate the idea of New York and you would still go. So goes the logic of the native I met while salsa dancing in the park. The idea of salsa dancing, for free, en masse, in the park, is bloody nice. Whether Chicago is sincere in its bloody-niceness, which it seems to be, or whether it is all some tourist-baiting scam intent on scuppering Vegas, New York and the rest, the effect is superb. People in Chicago are bloody nice. Pause for more than twenty seconds in the street and they will pounce, as if they are all trained in map reading, tourism and public relations, guiding your lost little soul to your desired destination in an earnest, inimitable accent, and most likely with a few recommended deviations on the way.

Chicago is a very nice place to be nice of course, which may be why the locals find it so easy. The lakeside setting (effectively seaside, the body of water being so vast), gives a relaxed coastal feel, the skyscrapers are all tall enough to be elegant, shiny enough to be impressive, and all match their colours, which isn't difficult, considering that they are all made from the same materials. The river makes a lazy wind through downtown and its strange forest of towers and interesting bridges, all of which are condensed into a very walkable area that occasionally is shadowed by a pleasingly urban overhead railway. There isn't really a central business district, it is an everything district, as hotels, shops, bars and offices muddle together in a zone that is strangely quiet in the evening, as the streets clear and destinations are picked. It transpires that downtown is not the place to be, though a night-time cocktail up the John Hancock centre should not be missed, especially considering that the trip up is free, and the cocktails, though not, are served by rather fetching waitresses.

Daytime fun can be had on Navy Pier, where every summer Wednesday and Saturday there is a firework display to go alongside the multiple bars, restaurants, galleries, boat trips and sundry diversions. There are an awful lot of firework stores along the road in from Indiana. Perhaps Americans just like explosions. They certainly like guns. Something to ponder.

We were lucky enough to be on the pier for the warm-up of the Air and Water Show, an annual extravaganza of jets and noise, full of flyovers, smoke trails, loops and all kinds of stimulating macho nonsense. We were also fortunate enough to get a signed photo and a cuddle from two Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, who were sneakily using one of Chicago's busiest tourist draws to advertise Texas. Of an evening, fun can be had around Wrigley Field, especially after the Cubs have finished, and especially if they have won. Whilst baseball is a ridiculous game, which many fans admit is just an excuse to sit in the sun and drink, the flood of buff, bronzed, blonded birds that flow outward into the sportsbars would sell any man to the idea, especially given the bloody-niceness of the people of Chicago (our waiter at lunch gave out six free drinks, while the hostess was lovely, despite never having left Illinois and mistaking an Australian for an Englishman).

Despite finding the pizza inferior to the thin crust of New York and Europe, I will most certainly be back, though I may bring a map for that lovely hostess.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Rural Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and a little bit of Lake Erie

Interstate 90 cuts through the northern part of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and a part of Illinois. There is little to distinguish the states from each other from the turnpike, except small variations in the height of the hills and the ratio of maize to peas being grown. Cleveland, Ohio, has little to its name, except some exceptionally tall industrial works and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Once you have seen Elvis' purple Lincoln, Slash's hat and some of Jimi's guitars, you have probably seen all that the area has to offer for tourists. I'm sure there is something else, but it was nothing spectacular. The lake itself is spectacular, but Cleveland cannot really claim it. Ohio does pick up some rather good country music stations, and does do a good line in classic rock, but considering that it has the Hall of Fame it probably has to keep up appearances.

I was going to say that the area to the south of the lake brings nothing to the table, but that probably isn't the case. I assume it brings corn. Other than the trucker stops and their racks of hats, stimulant drinks and two litre (or liter) coffee mugs, there is little to see apart from some silos and the odd sign to an Amish community. In this part of the US you can really get a sense of the scale of the country, as the rivers and the bridges that span them, or the valleys they cut through, are all huge, and invariably followed by another of equal size.

The best stop yet was made at the gas station in rural Ohio, about an hour off the shore, at the crossroads of two highways that went totally straight to the horizon in four directions. Above cold fridges stacked with frosty beer were the mounted heads and spread pelts of black bear, wolf, reindeer, various buck and a beaver. On the way to the toilet was a crayon drawing saying "I am PRoud to Be AmErican", with a flag without enough stars and stripes but with more than enough patriotism. Inside the toilet was graffitti explaining how "Mexicans shit to feed niggars", before pondering, "do you.". If you were to wander outside, yourself pondering this grammatically and socially dubious sentiment, you would see a shirtless man leaning against a red pickup. How very uncivilised. How very strange, and very American. As much as the country continues to break the stereotypes, it continues to keep them strong.

Upstate New York and the Appalachian trail

Cold Springs is a little town over an hour's drive on the highway from New York. Traversing the meanders of the Hudson river, the highway seems to take you to a place far, far away from the big city. It doesn't really, but the idea is nice. Commuter towns in upstate New York seem very quaint - lots of flags, hanging baskets and thoughtfully decaying antique lawnmowers resting on front lawns. Only the Hummer sitting in the driveway suggests that the regular trains departing from the station will take you back to Manhattan, not middle-America. Camping in a national park on the Appalachian trail gives a similar experience. Prodding through the paths to a pond in the woods, the strange quiet (there were few birds and no insects) is broken by the rumbling sound of a Ford Mustang, over-revving to get up the slope to its allocated zone. Apparently this campsite had deer (you can shoot them if you like, but you'll need a bow), but the only sign of life were the mosquitoes, who made up for their size in numbers. Deeper into the backwoods we needed to go.
Hitting the road, and its pretty but monotonous wooded vistas, broken by intermittent Wendy's and their 3/4 pound burgers (or 2/3 pound, I can't remember after the meat sweats), you occasionally catch a glimpse of an ATV repair shop, plastered with NRA posters and enthusiatic comments about gun ownership. So far, so wild. Passing the towns of Windsor, Damascus, Syracuse and Ovid, the idea of culture and history is rubbed closely alongside the battered remains of destruction derby cars waiting for the next round, brown snowmobile tracks ready for winter, and signs warning about deer, tractors, and off road vehicles. And then you come to Ithaca. Home to Ivy League Cornell University, and a substantial aging hippy population.
The town is clean, small, efficient, and punctuated by small shops selling clothes that are probably made from hemp. The library is clean, cool, and well stocked, (they have hundreds of copies of The Grapes of Wrath - group reading apparently). It also has lovely toilets and is just down the road from a bar. Enter that bar though, and you may hear a conversation relating to how uncomfortable it is to hit a deer with you motorcycle while doing seventy. Apparently the poor animal was sent flying into the woods, where the motorcyclist in question, who had scratched his jeans, could not find it, despite its cries. Shame really, he would have slit its throat to put it out of its misery, he said. Why he was doing seventy in the woods, was more concerned about killing a deer than checking himself over, and why he was carrying a knife big enough to do the job, while riding a motorcycle, at seventy, through the woods, he didn't say. Still, you got the sense that we were getting more rural.
That sense was heightened by the appearance of a skunk that night, in the campsite alongside Lake Cayuga. I was probably more afraid of the skunk than if it had been a bear. I am in the same van for the next three weeks, and if it gets squirted we would be in serious trouble. One dead in the group wouldn't make half the mess. Next to the lake is a waterfall that is higher than Niagara, and only attracts a handful of tourists. The lake itself can be swum in, and if you go after a storm, when there is a tornado warning and the lifeguards and police are elsewhere, panicking, you can have the whole thing to yourself, which is nice.
Niagara is a horrible town. Like a tackier, smaller, and less polished Blackpool, the Canadian side, surprisingly, is more grotesquely developed than the American side. Particularly at night the towering casinos overlooking the falls are not the most attractive of vistas. The falls are spectacular, which isn't really surprising. The sooner you can get out of the town after seeing them though, the better. Next stop Chicago, via a whole lot of nothing.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

New York - All that and more

New York is a very difficult city to write about. The fact is, so much has already been written, and, to my surprise, so much of it is true. It is exactly the way you would imagine: the size, the noise, the dirt, the constant, pulsing vivacity throughout its streets, as the valve-like crossroads release another stream of yellow cabs and pimped-out Escalades, and another, and another. I wanted to dismiss the city, to say it doesn't match London, and that, like our capital, it is bloated. It is one of the greatest cities in the world, but the similarities don't go far beyond that. Perhaps I'm still in holiday mode, and the pollution and grit in my contacts has made them rose-tinted, but I really like New York. I wouldn't say no to a job here.
I dislike many things about America, or at least complain about them. I don't like the myth of effortless multi-culturalism, the effects of uber-capitalism, the aggressive pace of places that never sleep, or the fact that almost every snack here involves sausages or meat-patties of some sort. But, I have visited Time Square, at night and at day, and I get it, I absolutely get it. There are many things that I don't get of course. I don't get the star-spangled banners slathered across the entire nation, or the fact that everything must be bigger, or the culture of fear that pervades so many places. There is a lot about being 'American' that is annoying. But in any city of this size, there will be people that contradict sweeping generalisations; I went out in Brooklyn a couple of nights ago and played pool against a pair of locals while drinking a local ale. The ale was good, one of the locals was a computer programmer, and we didn't get knifed by them after they lost. In one swoop, three myths were felled: about American beer, the ignorance of the locals (he knew who Erasmus was), and about the roughness of Brooklyn. All of this, in one bar, in one borough.
You can get a similar cultural rollercoaster in Central Park. Wandering south from the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir and its counter-clockwise only jogging path, through The Ramble and its wooded nooks to the baseball fields and carriage rides beyond, you are just as likely to find nubile frisbee minxs as tourists, sweating joggers as ancient, hand-holding couples, or Tai Chi students practising in the shade of the trees as a lone, grey-bearded man, cross legged atop a boulder, slowly playing Spanish guitar. All this in a man-made environment, a converted wasteland on an island otherwise coated in sprawling neighbourhoods, four-lane asphalt and towers that touch the sky.
In a place belching out fumes like Hades' arsehole, with streets swathed in the steam rising from sewers and corners coated with sweaty stalls shifting bun after bun of dubious by-product, you would think that it couldn't be glamorous, but it is. The exciting places are just those dubious zones: meatpacking districts, fish-packing districts, ethnic neighbourhoods, edgy places. What makes New York exciting is that, Manhattan aside, the city is so uncontrollable. You couldn't change anything about it if you wanted to. All you can do is turn up, and take pictures.


Wednesday, 5 August 2009

A quick word on moderation

To follow on from the Washington bit, Americans cannot avoid being outstanding. This is not to say outstandingly good, just special. Whether this means having the biggest burger, truck, breasts, etc, or being the first to mass produce, to go into space, or to invent stir-in powdered cheese, they just can't help it.
Everything is extreme. In the service industry, Americans are extremely nice. As a result, they expect extremely regular and large tips. If you don't give them, they get extremely upset. All their national sports are singular actions extended to their extremes: baseball is a man throwing a ball until one man hits it exceptionally well; basketball is several men scoring hoops until one man stops another man by jumping exceptionally well; football is several exceptionally large men pushing each other until one pushes through, in order to stop one man from throwing a ball exceptionally far to a man running exceptionally fast. All of the nuances, the football set-ups, the pitcher's curveballs, the three-point baskets, are just the fripperies around very basic actions.
Americans in the cities, if not working, are either a: fat or b: jogging. There is nothing in between. The military techniques and car industry are legendarily extreme. Vegas is extreme. Bling is extreme. Laziness is extreme. Nowhere is this last one more evident than in the total pointlessness that is the Segway, yours for only $5500.
The Segway is a two-wheeled personal mobility device, hugely engineered to accommodate various gyroscopes, motors and batteries, balancing, and propelling, up to 250 pounds worth of perfectly walkable human at up to 15 miles per hour, or slightly slower than you can run, for up to 24 miles, or slightly less than you could walk in a full day. It can carry no real bags, which is less than you, can negotiate no steps, again, less than you, and cannot withstand serious bumps or rough terrain, which you can. It is immensely American, cruising along at a slightly higher speed than normal, expending slightly less energy (yours that is, the thing still needs charging), just revelling in the knowledge that you are more technologically advanced than the pleb you are whirring past. They are brilliant fun, and any moron can pilot them with little difficulty. I took a tour with a guide and her mum up and down Washington. For this kind of activity, they have a purpose, cutting walking tours down to shorter, less sweaty excursions. New legislation in DC will put them on the roads though, and without indicators, brake lights, or any kind of protection, you're better off on a bike.
The mum invited me to dinner afterwards, which was very nice, and again, very American. The locals are lovely, as long as you catch them when they are not working, and not going through the motions of being lovely. You can understand why, they probably just push themselves too far. It's that extreme thing again.

Washington D.C. FREEDOM!!! and other movie lines.

As I settled into my seat for the flight to D.C. I was struck by the notion that wishing to get closer to Americans was perhaps a little premature. This was most likely due to the outstandingly plump child seated before me, weighed down by huge, gold aviators that he had to keep pushing back up his little, fat nose, and the huge, gold watch that he had to keep pushing back up his little, fat arms. That, or the outstandingly plump brother to this child, who had seated himself in the seat next to me, as well as mine. As I wondered about the possibilities of changing seats, an outstandingly camp, Hispanic air steward made an announcement of some sort. As I could not understand a word of what he was mincing, I decided to hunker down for the brief flight from Boston, it was only an hour.
With the flight still in my mind, wandering through Washington's imposing buildings and cavernous museums, strolling down its massive central mall, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Americans cannot do anything unless it is outstanding. I like Washington, I like its grandeur, its sense of purpose and its obvious air of business-like intent, and the way that it takes itself seriously. Perhaps too seriously, though; almost all the buildings are weighty, thick edifices with enormous columns and defiant, hard edges. In an effort to recall the seats of ancient democracies, the architects of Washington's greatest monuments and museums fashioned exaggerated, neo-classical monsters. The best example of this is the National Archives Building, an enlarged Pantheon sporting a stepped pyramid on its summit. For a country so young (at the time of construction), to emulate two ancient structures, and then brashly conflate them in a building housing the country's relatively meagre history, is amusingly, amazingly proud. The quasi-religious significance is intentional; this is the structure housing the United State's most sacred texts: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
Though the whole city is faintly ridiculous, and only faintly, it is extremely hard not to get involved. Walking along the mall, sitting atop the Lincoln memorial, taking the tour of the Capitol and watching the movie about the United State's creation, it made me proud to be American. Which was a bit weird, obviously. It is near impossible not to get sucked in. The USA is one nation, under God, but by taking in all of Washington's literature I was struck by the idea that that god is the Union itself. The reverence for the creation that the American people are makers and members of is almost cult-like; they love it when it works, blame it for their difficulties, owe it everything but have their own independent wishes that work against it. "After God, the next most important thing is your country", say a young marine in a conscription video replayed in the National Museum of American History, "opinions are considered, and considered again", say the voiceover in the Congressional guide. Democracy is difficult, it is a vocation, if not a mission, a crusade. Freedom, as they say (repeatedly), is't free. It needs you heart, your body, and most clearly of all, your soul.
Walking away from the pantheon of statues in the Capitol building (two of each state's greatest figures), down past the pagan phallus of the National Monument, the National Archives and their darkened crypt where the national treasures are guarded, the pure white temple where their highest leader resides, and the memorials to patriots, fallen in Korean, Vietnam, and World wars, you eventually reach the Lincoln Memorial, clearly modelled on the Temple of Jupiter. Looking over the mall though, and all the glory that America can assemble, the only people there are tourists, and only a handful of them American. Then again, who really though that Washington was ever designed to impress American citizens? As a foreigner, looking on, it is ridiculous, it is pompous, and it is a little grotesque. But, as the pictures show, it does look lovely, and you can't complain about that.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Photos of Boston

Still coping with new pcs in different places. Here are some photos of Boston, Harvard, MIT, and a bear. I have subsituted myself for a bear because I can take photos of it when there is nobody to take photos of me. That is my excuse and I am sticking to it.


Saturday, 1 August 2009

Bye to Boston

Three main discoveries made today. First, my legs are weak. Second, the Vietnamese make a mean sandwich. Third, in certain north eastern cities, 'character' means rough as f**k.
Yesterday was tiring; with my new 'buddies' Arvin and Erik, (two Swedish chaps, one little and blonde, one tall and bespectacled) I trekked to Cambridge, home to Harvard and MIT, both of which are arguably better than Cambridge, Cambridge. It transpires that Arvin loves his evolutionary biology, and Harvard's Museum of Natural History is particularly slanted in this field. The exhibits are standard museum fare, but it easy to forget that it is a university's museum, and they have triceratops heads and suspended whale skeletons. I love museums, especially ones with animals, but Harvard just made me feel very unimportant, and very poor.
On the way to Cambridge we stopped in Toscani's, which, according to the NYT, makes the best ice cream in the world. It probably does, but when it's pissing it down so much that ducks are landing in the intersections, one doesn't feel too much like ice cream. The vanilla rooibos is lovely though.
During term-time, Cambridge must be a fantastic place to be. It is spookily, eerily clean though. Perhaps the students bring the litter back to a normal level, perhaps the street cleaners just get so good at dealing with the hundreds of thousands of students in the greater Boston area that when they leave, the job is easy. I thought the swedes would appreciate this, but they weren't as excited as I was, which was a shame.
Arvin and Erik went up the coast on my final day, but, finances being stretched for two months, I decided to stay local and tick the final boxes I had missed. First on the list was the Bunker Hill monument, just one of many chest-pounding icons of New England's defiant independence and patriotism. A huge, pointed phallus, it has 294 steps to the viewing platform, where you can get a great view of the city's skyline. This is all true, but trying to take a steady picture after scaling its height in 25 degree weather and in flip-flops is quite another matter. Still, good calf workout.
The neighbourhood around Bunker Hill, roughly spreading into Charlestown is lovely: pastel-painted wooden boards front every house, gardens are neat and colourful, roads are clean, streets are tree-lined. Basically, it's a conservation area, and therefore totally unrepresentative of Boston. The Warren Tavern, favoured haunt of Paul Revere (the British are coming, etc), is now an estate agent, flogging hugely expensive riverfront properties. I stopped for a drink in an Irish bar next door: hurling sticks on the walls, two screens showing above the bar, gruff barmaid behind it. The first telly showed, exclusively, adverts for food, in massive, greasy portions. The second showed, exclusively, protein powders, weight loss programs, self-help guides and plastic surgery. Is this representative of America? Maybe I'll know in a few weeks.
Next on the list was Chinatown, for lunch. Skirting past the live poultry store and its noisy menu, I went to the Vietnamese Sandwich House on Harrison Avenue, where a tub of sticky-spicy pork, veg and sticky rice is $3.75. The sandwiches look just as tasty, and are far cheaper. Still, not Irish, not the Boston I wanted.
South Boston, the semi-residential Irish neighbourhood, is in the words of the Boston guide in my hostel, "Jimmy Bulger's (think Nicholson in The Departed) old stomping ground". It continues, the area is "characterful and can still draw visitors in". Perhaps, if you were tied to the back of something heading that way. It's not that the area is really rough, it reminds me of Stevenage, Hertfordshire (for the Americans), but the positives are just not enough to bring you there ahead of the negatives or neutrals. Disappointed, I headed home via streets lined with IRA murals and badly spelt graffiti raving about the Dropkick Murphys.
As a send-off to the city, I went out with a genuine Irishman. And two Aussies. And a Brummie. Popping into a pub in the Back Bay area, we assembled ourselves around a large table and explained to the waitresses why tipping was wrong. Several cheap but totally rubbish beers later, I decided to call it an evening, before, like my new-found Irish pal, I started buying the waitresses shots. I left the city of the Celtics with a celt getting progressively more enjoyable, but with the usual colonials attending the table, I'm still struck by the fact that I have still not met enough Americans. Maybe the capital is the best place to look. Nest stop D.C.