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...

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Home, and Raz's final thought

This has been a fascinating journey. Even in the time I spent here, and in all the distance travelled, I never imagined I would meet so many people from another country. I believe this experience has really taught me about their culture. Who knew there were so many out there? And that they were so different, and yet so alike? Still, enough about Australians.

And so, five thousand and eight hundred miles, twenty states, two shoelaces, two destroyed t-shirts, one pair of trainers and a flip-flop later, I still have absolutely no idea what Americans are about. Because the country is, for now at least, predominantly English speaking, and their culture comes to ours so often through the media, you assume Americans are like us. They are not. At all. They are not even like themselves. To call them a country is a mistake. Honestly, I am surprised that they get along at all. Moreover, given that they live in fifty broadly similar countries, I’ve only seen half of them. Which is like saying you’ve seen Europe, except the bits that touch the Mediterranean. The question posed above is can you see it all at once? The answer is it seems, in two months at least, most certainly not.

Still, there has been some lovely scenery, and some very interesting characters. I don't know who I'll remember most. Perhaps Mikey, the OC brat who, pissed at midday, accosted me outside the MGM Grand and offered to 'smoke the shit' out of me, if only I could get him back into the third casino to eject him in 4 hours. I felt for him, as between his tears he sobbed that he just 'wanted to party' (I love that Americans use that as a verb). Also in Vegas were Bryan and Chris, the professional poker players (but amateur drinkers) that I joined at the Blackjack table, and left on the Strip at six the next morning. Bryan was on The Real World, which apparently is still shown in the US, sometimes. Or maybe the gruff man in Montana, who stared at our van's licence plate as he leant out of his F350 and spat out his tobacco, demanding: "when you going back to California?”. Not to forget the similarly bearded fellow who warned us about the Sasquatch in Yosemite. Then there was Susan, the elderly lady who didn't know about the buses in Memphis so drove me instead. And of course Megan and Elizabeth, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders who gave me one of the greatest hugs of my life. Many happy memories.

Let’s not get beyond ourselves though, there is a lot I dislike about America, an awful lot. There is the pandemic hypochondria and the disordered healthcare system that feeds it, and the horrid billboards with labels like “When is your child's cold not a just a cold?” There is, on the surface at least, a serious problem with poverty, especially in the southern states. Widely documented and debated is the availability of guns and the fact that even the most minor of security guards is carrying a weapon, most likely without adequate training. More worrying perhaps are the signs saying relinquish your weapon at the door, which means there are people on the streets with guns, and no training at all. Not worrying, but more inconvenient, are the many cities with dreadful public transport systems that remain woefully underused, resultantly under-funded and impractically irregular. You could draw a link from this to the ubiquitous, vast, gross trucks, the culture that has spawned drive-through chemists and ATMs, the rampant obesity and the roaring squads of geriatrics on Harley-Davidson trikes.

But these are just minor, individual gripes. The single most uncomfortable, irritating thing in much of America is the pervasive sense of fear, the uncertain meaning of freedom and the frequent sense that someone, or something is trying to take that freedom away. Maybe the government. Maybe outsiders. Maybe the pharmaceutical companies, the hippies, or the Communists. Who knows?

The fact remains though that there is a separate place that I would take almost everyone I know. It is a continent, not a country, and that's not even counting Canada, Alaska and Mexico. Most maps do not put North America in the kind of scale that fairly represents it. You could fit most of Western Europe in Texas alone. In an area this size, with 300 odd million people from all over the world, it is no surprise that there is some fantastic stuff here. 3/4 pound burgers, multiple mountain ranges, epic beaches, rodeos, occasional but nonetheless impressive fauna, skyscrapers, sculptures and the entire cities like Vegas or Disneyworld, dedicated as they are to money and entertainment yet existing in a union with Salt Lake City or the Amish communities, built and still centred upon Faith.

Despite its vastness, for a first-world country the US is shockingly insular, though in part you cannot blame the individual citizens who think that Afghanistan is near Africa, or are amazed that the UK has more than one accent, let alone more than one country. There is a need for a drastic reshuffle in the education system across the states in order that world events, and the United States’ place in them, are put into a better context. It is funny, at first, to notice the huge irony in a country so inward-looking, that insists upon labelling everything ‘world famous’. Perhaps that is because their world only extends into the next state. Nevertheless, it really ought to change.

Something that was said to me on numerous occasions was that by the time I had finished I would have seen more of America than most Americans. This is probably true. In Washington D.C. most of all, I wondered what proportion of citizens had seen the movie about the difficult union that is looped in the theatre in Congress, or had visited the National Museum of the American Indian, or Memphis’s National Civil Rights Museum. It sounds repetitive, but America still needs to work harder to integrate itself. Indeed, travelling across the States you realise that all of the stereotypes are absolutely true, from California’s soccer moms to Boston’s IRA murals, from the Confederate Flags flying down south to the truckers trawling the interstates. All over though, are exceptions too. America remains an awesome place, despite its shortcomings. And while the American stereotype definitely needs to see more of the world, there remains an awful lot in their own country they ought to see first.

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