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

San Antonio, the Alamo and other missions

My body is struggling to cope with the transition from burgers to tacos. Tex-Mex has brought me to San Antonio, and I am now being tested by the combined might of every flag that has flown over Texas (there have been six). Apparently everything is bigger in Texas, and although that is debatable, Texans can rightly feel proud of their salsas. They're massive.

San Antonio is really very Hispanic. The series of missions that thread through the town are in various states of repair, but all point clearly to the area's previous governors. The various flags that have flown over Texas are Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, Confederate and American, and all but the French have left a tangible element in the character of the city. The natives didn't have a flag mind you, but their influence in Tejano culture is emphasised in the mission information centers, and in the rather interesting Institute of Texan Cultures, which has a fairly good area on indigenous peoples and a whole baby mammoth, albeit slightly shriveled.

Due to the absence of a decent hostel in the city, I am staying in a luxurious bed and breakfast that is roughly three times more than I ought to be spending, but does have six pillows per bed and cable with many Spanish language channels and their obligatory dreadful soaps. My host is an hospitable man, who offered to drive me into town in his convertible Chevrolet Camaro. Loud, flamboyant, opinionated, almost like an American Basil Fawlty, he seems however totally carefree, and is booming in a way that would disconcert children and small animals. He has a habit of leaving sentences hanging, made even more strange by the colossal introductions he gives them, "OH HELL! I tell ya they were a real hoot, a todal BLAST! Oh, shit, I mean...eh...urgh...", he says, shaking his head slowly.

I was waiting for him to pick me up from a faux-rickety restaurant bar on the edge of Downtown. I say faux-rickety, it looks genuinely old, but it does appear nailed together despite its rhomboidal walls. I was also hoping he'd have the roof up as Texas was just coming out of a huge drought. I had reached the bar by taking the Riverwalk, a long landscaping of both banks of the San Antonio River, but the intermittent showers had pushed even the mariachi bands under cover, from where they would peer at the heavens with distrust. Most of the walk is full of restaurants and bars, and like a latin Center Parcs the pavestones follow the winding water over arching bridges and under shady trees. It's all very nice, even in the wet.

The next morning I spent pottering about the Spanish Market, a strange blend of trendiness and tourist tat, including a back area where they removed the farmers market and replaced it with boutique tourist stores. It is hard to like it, but there are some very cheap tacos and I did buy a t-shirt with a cool Mexican skull on the front. Continuing the ongoing search for souvenirs while Enrique Iglesias blared out of the Teriyaki Kitchen next door, I contemplated the purchase of cowboy boots and a hat to prepare myself for Nashville, my next destination. Deciding against it, I spent the afternoon wandering around the King William historic district, a very nice neighborhood of pretty, grand Victorian houses. While they are very nice, and historically significant here, I still find it hard to get excited about a house only thirty years older than my student digs. It's all relative I suppose.

On the subject of relativity, the Alamo is an odd experience. Blending fervent jingoism with a deep sense of regret and injustice, the shrine, (and it is a shrine), is quiet, reserved and strictly hat removed, and full of the kind of rhetoric of freedom, liberty, sacrifice, blood and honour that makes America so confusing. While there is no animosity towards the Spanish, or the Mexicans, or the British, or the Union, the Alamo makes absolutely clear the fact that glorious Texans died to keep Texas free and independent from any other power. And this idea is extrapolated, obliquely and directly, to cohere with the national 'freedom isn't free, but we are the free, God bless America' message. And yet, Texas is not independent, precisely because of the national federated system, so it is very hard to take the rhetoric seriously. Surely, though the men at the Alamo fought bravely against the overwhelming Mexican force, the legend doesn't exactly point to a success. Of course, there are gun-toting separatist movements in Texas, but they are reasonably marginal. The strangest thought is that they might be closest to the real message of the Alamo than a lot of Texans and Americans would like to admit.

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