Thursday, May 26, 2011

New England and a Narrow Escape

A typical New England scene

I write, ye readers of mine blog, after one seven month in the Puritan Province of New England…actually to tell the truth, it was about a fortnight, and New England nowadays is most certainly not a province, or Puritan, and, sadly, New Englanders speak English similarly to most other North Americans, rather than the Crucible-esque language I had romantically been imagining. Still, this far Northeast outpost of the United States has a different atmosphere entirely from almost everywhere else we have visited thus far. To pinch a thought from Arthur Miller, the frontier spirit, which has hardly left the USA as a whole, is far more apparent in New England than anywhere else. Not in the big, brash, gun-totin’, don’t-you-dare-take-away-my-liberties style (although New Hampshire’s state motto is Live Free or Die) favoured in the South, and to an extent, the Midwest, but more in a fierce guarding of all things local and small production.

Our last stop was in Montpelier, Vermont, a stunning ‘city’ set in the Green Mountains, retaining all the charm of a French alpine town. The Capital of the state, all of eight thousand people live in the city, the smallest capital of a US State by a large margin. These clever cookies have come up with a wonderful idea for the commercial outlets of the city, an idea that would never float in most of the USA, but something which encapsulates the New England frontier spirit quite neatly: no chains, franchises, or national companies are allowed in the city limits. Our Detroit born-and-raised manager was quite intrigued by this concept, but I liked it (and have henceforth been referred to as ‘hippy’). Here’s why: For probably only the sixth time in the past five months, I found a city with a thriving central area: Ann Arbor (Michigan), Chicago, New Orleans, Raleigh (North Carolina), Washington, and New York are the big exceptions, but all of these are large cities, generally supported by sizeable student and yuppie populations. Small town USA, even suburban USA, is, for the most part, an amalgamation of square weatherboard houses, Big Box stores, chain fast food outlets, and strip malls. If you are walking from your car in the parking lot to the front door of your favourite shop, you’re going a long way. Instead, here in Montpelier, we found people walking aimlessly along the streets, cool cafes, bars and restaurants where people would go to try unique food, good local produce, and maybe hear a local band. It contributed to a sense of community I hadn’t really found in many other places. Certainly, the majority of Americans are extremely friendly, welcoming, and hospitable, but you wouldn’t necessarily have people smile and say hello on the street (in some places, you’re lucky to even find people on the street), and you most definitely wouldn’t find people stopping for you at pedestrian crossings. It made me happy.

Another interesting trait I have found, again in all of the USA, but most obviously in New England, is an infatuation with one’s heritage. At a dinner party held for us in Amherst, Massachusetts, I at least six times had a conversation with guests that went something like this:
Guest: So where are you from?
Me: Australia.
Guest: Okay, but where is your family from?
Me: Australia.
Guest. I see. What’s your surname?
Me: McDonald.
Guest: Wow! With a name like Patrick McDonald, you must be Irish or Scottish!
Me: Well, I’ve never been to Ireland or Scotland…
Guest: Buy your family must be from there?
Me: Well, my ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland, but that was in the early 19th Century…
Guest: So you’re Irish! Me too!

Huh? Basically this type of conversation ends with the guest, having received the answer they wanted in the most roundabout way, getting excited about the fact that we are, in some way, related. I guess some way of feeling connected. Another way in which this manifests itself goes a little like this:
Guest: Do you speak any languages other than English?
Me: Yeah, I speak Italian.
Guest: Really? I’m Italian!
Me: Really? Cool! Where were you born?
Guest: Brooklyn.
Me: Uh huh. Doesn’t that make you American?
Guest: Well, I’m an American citizen, but I come from an Italian family.
Me: I see. Where were your parents born?
Guest: Brooklyn.
Me: Ever been to Italy?
Guest: No.
Me: Do you speak Italian?
Guest: No.
Me: Would you ever move to Italy?
Guest: Hell no!

And on it goes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for pride in one’s heritage, but claiming you’re something when you’ve never left the Northeast USA strikes me as just a little bit rich.

Today, we left the aforementioned Northeast United States for that huge country of ice, moose and maple trees: Canada. The whole getting across the border thing was supposed to be easy: Flash our passports, tell them where we’re going, smile a bit, enjoy your stay, try the maple syrup. Of course, things never quite go as imagined, and we were met with a touch of suspicion at the border. The immigration officer at the car booth, while friendly enough, immediately referred us inside, where Philippe, a most conscientious immigration official, perused our passports, demanded more paperwork to prove that we are singers, and not in fact some plant by the United States Government attempting to annexe Canada as the 51st state, then emailed the big wig all the way in Michigan to receive said paperwork, leaving us waiting for about two hours, at which point he politely demanded we leave Canada and return when either we printed the correct documents, or he received them via email. We were this close to being angry at Philippe, but he had such a cool French-Canadian accent, and he was trying so hard to be mean, but he just couldn’t manage it. Still, we had to go. We had actually been evicted from Canada, even if it was from a smiling bloke barely old enough to dress himself.

Having taken the most auspicious title of Canadian deportees, we trudged back, tails squarely between our legs. Our new worry was that the US wouldn’t let us in either. We would be stuck in the No Man’s Land between Canada and the USA, nowhere to go, nothing to help us get back from one to the other. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Quite unexpectedly, we were welcomed back like the prodigal son. Even so, for those of you who haven’t been deported before, it really is quite a sobering experience. As such, we headed to McDonald’s, that great American institution, to drown our sorrows (two of us are underage in the US), until finally we got the call-up to head back. Philippe made us wait another hour, but, finally, we were allowed in to the Promised Land. I was really beginning to like him.

I should what?

So after the biggest travel-related ordeal since Boony’s Beers, we are in Quebec, Canada. Any mug who tells you Canada is just like the USA has obviously never been to Quebec. For a start, the majority speak French, all the road signs, advertisements and most media outlets are French, and at times you could well be in France. Québécoise are extremely proud of their French heritage, too. Their provincial motto is Je me souviens, which I have loosely translated to mean ‘You’ll never get us to speak English, basterds!’, and their stop signs say arrêt. Even the French use stop. All this contributes to Quebec being uniquely cool in my opinion, but really, its biggest drawcard is Montreal. Beautiful, buzzing, cosmopolitan Montreal. Save for the prevalence of French, it really wouldn’t be too difficult for me to forget I’m in Montreal and think that I am, in fact, back in Melbourne. High praise for a city indeed.

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