Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sweet Home Alabama (and Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana)

From freezing our backsides taking over the world      
The last fortnight and a bit has been nothing short of a whirlwind. In sixteen days I have stayed with nine different families in nine towns/cities across six states. Yeah. Beat that. In that time I’ve seen the weather change from Arctic to mild spring, landscapes from flat and snowy to hilly and dense with nature, accents from brash to almost lazy, and political views from moderate and quietly manifested to obnoxiously radical. So I thought I would give a brief (by my standards at least) summary of each state I’ve visited in the past little while. I don’t know how often people get to travel through seven states in such a short time, and claim to know people and have made friends in each one of them, but either way it’s pretty exciting for me. Here goes…

Illinois Granted, I made fair mention of this state during my last blog, but I spent longer there than in any other of these states (six nights) in more places (three), so it’s only fair that it gets another chance. Chicago is still the most exciting place I’ve visited so far. Not necessarily the best, (I’m not playing favourites…) but the place just had so much stuff going on: Art, sport, food, people. In Chicago, for about the first time since being here, (except for being in college towns) I felt that the USA wasn’t a country dominated by the notion that you should be out of your car as little as possible. People actually walked places, and, can you believe it, used that strange mode of transport where you have to share giant car-looking things with people you’ve never met before. Public Transport, I think they call it.

            The other two places we stayed in Illinois were the suburb of Winnetka, and the Crystal Lake/Woodstock region just outside the Chicago metropolitan area. Winnetka holds the most auspicious title of the third-wealthiest locality in the country. And trust me, it showed. The school we performed at had so much spare cash that their staff had their own private Dining Room, replete with mahogany tables and chairs, plush fireside couches and a full-time kitchen manager. Given the school we last visited had so little money that the students took exams and homeroom in auditorium chairs with another five classes, it all seemed a bit extravagant. But that’s been my experience of the US so far: it doesn’t matter which way you swing, as long as you’re extreme. Crystal Lake/Woodstock was a great time. Trivia Quiz: For what is Woodstock, Illinois, famous? If you answered the Woodstock Music Festival, please stop reading this now and take a class in 20th Century history. The correct response is Groundhog Day. A self-proclaimed Bill Murray groupie, I was quite excited to see all the sights made famous by the film, and more excited about the fact that Woodstock had some of those slopey things I vaguely remember calling ‘hills’ (sorry, but the American Midwest is so flat it’s enough to send you cuckoo within 24 hours. And I spent nearly 7 weeks there. As if I wasn’t mad enough). Despite what was at one stage a 60˚C difference in temperature between home and Chicago (35˚C at home, -25˚C in Chicago, no joke) it was a truly memorable time.

Indiana Indiana is an interesting little place. Nestled between larger, more populated, and better known states like Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, and Kentucky, it isn’t that difficult to forget it’s there. So Indianans (as opposed to Indians, confusing I know) have become shrewd little blighters. For example, they built a stunning university in little-known Bloomington, which just so happens to be the only all-sandstone campus in the world, and houses the largest music school in North America. They also give you addresses like ‘2000 N C R 600 E Avon IN 46123’, which, if you can believe it, contains the street name and number, the city, state, and zip code. No, not confusing at all. Nestled in the middle of it all, however, is Indianapolis, a surprisingly vibrant and cosmopolitan city that quite literally comes out of nowhere. Amongst other things, it is home to as many war memorials as Washington, D.C., the Indy 500 (the most-watched motor sport race in the world) and will host the next Super Bowl. On a late-night jaunt through the Downtown area, Kayla, our Canadian singer, excitedly proclaimed it ‘the City of Love’ (some of the buildings had been rather ostentatiously decorated for Valentine’s Day). I certainly agreed that the architecture was quite impressive under lights, but somehow felt she was going a little far, and gladly told her so, in no uncertain terms (ie. ‘What are you talking about you moron? That’s Paris!’). Until I found the little cafĂ© and chocolate shop that reminded me of one I visited in Italy a few years ago. And they actually served real coffee. I subsequently sang L.O.V.E. by Nat King Cole at every street corner.

            The Indianapolis region is also know to be one of the most conservative cities in the US with a population of over one million. To this end, whilst describing the current Australian political situation at a church dinner (I didn’t bring it up first. Promise), I may or may not have mentioned that I am a fairly politically involved person. As a result, I was approached by a lovely (or so it seemed at the time) older woman who was really up for a chat. Part of the conversation went something like this:
WOMAN: ‘I found the things you said about politics in Australia so interesting.’
PADDY: ‘Thanks! It’s really quite a unique situation at the moment.’
WOMAN: “Yes, I’m very political myself. I’m a real Tea Party Conservative, so I get very riled up about that.’
PADDY: ‘Oh! Well…(extended pause) politics sure can do that.’
Like a good little boy, I buttoned up after that. I figured mentioning my conspiracy theory of Sarah Palin being a dinosaur brought back to life by Rupert Murdoch may not have been the best idea. End of conversation.

Kentucky Okay, so we were only out of the car five minutes here. In a gas station. Beside the point. I can now say ‘I’ve been to Kentucky’ and not be talking about visiting the Colonel. Two things I noticed about Kentucky in my visit there:
  1. The weather was finally starting to warm up.
  2. Colonel Sanders and the Kentucky Derby (America’s Melbourne Cup) are their only claims to fame. Seriously.

Tennessee Ah, the South. Due to the fact that I had family who lived there for so long, and therefore knew that Australians existed there, and the weather was so much more agreeable than further north, I immediately felt that Tennessee was more Australian than any other part of the US we had visited. Southern Hospitality (not at all dissimilar from the Australian version) was immediately on display at our first stop in the state, a Starbucks. On noticing that Lulu (our Zambian singer) had an accent, the manager enquired about her nationality, and exactly what she was doing in an outer suburb of Nashville. When he found out, he gave her her coffee for free, with a smile and a ‘Welcome to the USA’. The smartie pants didn’t ask me about my accent until after I paid.

            My annoyance of the sly sales tactics of Starbucks managers aside, Tennessee, just like the states before it, provided a raft of highlights. The first full day for us was, luckily, a day off, and so we took the opportunity to get out and see the famous sights of Nashville. Stop one was the Country Music Hall of Fame, where we were lucky enough to have free tickets organised for us. So I bounded up to the concierge desk to announce our arrival. After three attempts at conveying the information to the attendant, I was told ‘Sorry sir, but it would be much easier if you could talk in English’. I got Kayla to translate. The museum itself was everything one would expect from a country music museum – tacky, trashy and downright awesome. Solid gold pianos, car fixtures paying homage to guns, diamond-studded guitars with velvet straps, and, of course, no shortage of that authentic country sound pulsing through the speakers.

            Our country music education complete, we ventured onto Nashville’s main tourist drag, which was awash with ‘hat ‘n’ boot’ stores, music dens (no under-21s or firearms allowed. Safety is obviously their first priority) and Southern kitchens. I was lucky enough to escape the tourist traps for the afternoon, instead spending it with an Australian ‘local’ who showed me the lesser-known side of the town – leafy, modern, and vibrant. They even served good coffee. I was able to see all the places I’d heard about from my family for so long, which had me jumping out of my skin with excitement, and, just for a moment, I could’ve been back home. We rounded out our stay in Tennessee with a whirlwind tour of some local schools, daycares, colleges and nursing homes, well received at all of them, but still with audience members commenting on how funnily I pronounced ‘Australia’. I guess they never taught me properly at school.

Alabama The song (I’m not even going to name it, lest I have you singing it until you hear It’s A Small Word After All) is so ubiquitous that its title is the official number-plate slogan of the state. As a result, I am considering petitioning Julia Gillard to enact a change of all Australian number-plates to read ‘Waltzing Matilda’. That, or ‘It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll’, but I’m trying to appeal to a broad demographic. Apart from that, there really isn’t much to say about Alabama. For one, I only spent two nights there, and secondly, Huntsville, where we stayed, is hardly known for being a happening place. As it was explained to me, there’s ‘just a lot of engineers and churches’. I would say that’s pretty apt. There was, however, some warmer weather, a space and rocket museum, and some very friendly people. One of my jobs whilst there was to read an Australian story to a group of Special Ed kids – it was just brilliant to see the excitement on their faces, and I have no doubt it was the first time in the history of Huntsville Public Schools that the Australian story in the Special Ed curriculum books was actually read by an Australian, although there was an Australian family at the school, originally from Rockhampton. It shows how much I miss Australian accents that I actually got excited to hear that horrible Central Queensland ocker. Maybe I’m going deaf.

Singin' the Blues in Hattiesburg, MS

Mississippi Mississippi is known to be the most obese state in the USA, the most generous state (I would suggest those two go hand-in-hand), now, the state where Patrick McDonald almost got arrested – I hear they’re making a movie about it. It all started when, in a nasty traffic jam near our destination of Hattiesburg, we were (barely) rear-ended, and, as such, had to pull over and call the State Troopers to file an accident report. In my experience, police have far more important things to do than file a report for merely cosmetic damage, and, quite expectedly, it was a good hour before anyone arrived. So what do you do when you’re stuck on the side of the Interstate in rural Mississippi? You entertain yourself, which we did with a freeway-side jam session that was so off the charts that it required video documentation, which I duly provided. It just so happened that in the middle of said recording, we were approached by the state trooper who had been deployed to inspect the carnage, who was under the impression that I was in fact photographing him, which is illegal in the state of Mississippi. In his defence, he was looking rather stunning in his all-grey onesie, coat, and Stetson hat, so I can see where the mistake may have been made. Still, I was left pleading my innocence whilst dreaming of what would happen when I was subject to interrogation by Sheriff Stuckey from Mississippi Burning…until our friendly neighbourhood Trooper decided we weren’t worth his while and headed off to fry bigger fish. Phew.

            Our stay in Mississippi, whilst short, was nonetheless made exciting, informative, and at times quite confronting by our hosts. Our first night involved a trip to the ‘Shed’, a traditional Mississippian barbeque and blues joint, where we were expected to eat ourselves sick on saucy ribs, beans, taters, and slaw, which we duly did. The blues part of the evening was provided by T-Bone Pruitt, a 77-year-old legend of the craft. On hearing that we were an international vocal quartet, he promptly invited us on stage to perform a few numbers, which, we heard later, he has never done in his 50+ year career. Thankfully we were well received (I was a bit worried that the crowd thought blues was the only form of music) and Mississippi had made a good first impression.

            The most significant part of our visit to Hattiesburg, however, was not to do with our singing, although the concert we gave rates highly on my list so far – standing ovation and teary audience members doesn’t happen too often. Instead, this honour went to our Saturday afternoon expedition through the African American Military History Museum (the only one of its kind in the country). The previous evening, on a speedy walking tour though the town, we had been introduced to some black soldiers at the veterans’ club – men who had fought in Vietnam for a country that didn’t recognise their rights. Yet they were such proud, open men who loved their country and comrades, and were thrilled to have an audience for their message, and even more thrilled that we took the time to sing for them, and showed genuine interest in the history of black involvement in the US military. So the museum itself was the first stop of our Saturday jaunt, and showed the same pride and courage that the men we had met the night before embodied. Sadly, by the end of the tour, and despite telling so many poignant stories of the tragedy and destruction involved with war, by it’s end the museum was merely acting as a recruitment commercial. To show his disdain for this, Sergio was sure to ‘conduct business’ on the tank outside as we left.

            Whilst the museum was a fascinating stop on the way, the remainder of the afternoon held the most unique experience. The museum was housed in a predominantly black neighbourhood, and given the favourable weather, we though a walk was in order. What we saw was all at once beautiful, sad, thought provoking and full of happiness. Immediately, we felt not out of place, but as though we were an unusual addition to the area. Certainly we were (except Lulu) the only white people we saw. The area was like nothing I had ever seen before. Still reeling from Katrina, there was much unrepaired damage and abandoned homes, but it didn’t put a dampener on the spirit of the people we met. Every person we came across greeted us with a smile, or invited us into their homes, cafes or parties for a drink or a chat, showing so much pride and hospitality that it was impossible not to smile, despite the poverty around us. It dawned on me as we walked back to our host home, along a path lined with impressive magnolias, littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts, that I had experienced something rare for a white American, let alone a white Australian in the country for the first time. I felt so lucky to have had just a small taste of Mississippi life in so many of its formats, and found I wanted more. For whatever reason, the American South remains to a large extent segregated, except today it is more by choice than by expectation. My inquisitive mind needs to know why.

 Caught in the Act - thanks to Betty Press for this photo

 Louisiana To tell the truth, I’ve only been in Louisiana for six hours, so watch this space for a more in-depth analysis. I can, however, give first impressions, which, like so many of my experiences here, are riddled with contradictions. On one hand, we have entered a city with so much character, charm and impossibly welcoming people, not to mention gumbo (it didn’t take them long to make sure we had a real New Orleanian meal). Yet on the other hand, there is so much visible hardship and ugliness. Entire suburbs remain abandoned, five years after Katrina – Dubya’s legacy to the people of New Orleans. What a top bloke. Still, the place is bursting with character and I vibrancy I’ve yet to come across elsewhere in this country. We have a full week of singing, socialising and Mardi Gras celebrating ahead of us, and I can’t wait.

            So there you have it. My ‘brief’ summary has turned out to be my longest entry yet. If you’re still reading this, well done. If not…well who cares. It’s been one heck of a fortnight, full of so many highlights that it’ll be impossible to remember them all. The only thing beginning to grate is the language, specifically ‘y’all’. At one point, it was so prevalent that I was asked, when I left my phone on a restaurant table in Alabama, ‘Is this y’all’s?” Excuse me? ‘Is the phone y’all’s?’ I had to contain my grammar Nazi self, but it’s slowly beginning to get to me. I will gladly smack the next person who uses the term. Let this be your warning.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Tale of Two Chicagos…and lots of snow

Snow Angel. Heck Yes.

Monday of last week was the day that we finally left our ‘home base’ of Dearborn, Michigan, for the start of our big tour. I was excited for a number of reasons: A new place to see every few days, slowly warming temperatures, and no more wading through reams of cables to plug in the internet. For a few days, my first prediction turned out to be true, as we piled in and out of our van for consecutive four-hour plus trips. On the other two, however, less luck was had. From Tuesday-Thursday of last week, I stayed with a lovely old couple in the middle of nowhere. Lovely, but their idea of a wild night was a bucket of popcorn and an NCIS marathon. So, on my first evening there, after most of the popcorn was eaten and the credits of NICS: LA (apparently television programmes are at the point where their names are merely a jumble of letters) began to roll, I politely enquired if they had wireless internet.
            “No my dear, I’m sorry,” was the response. No matter, I thought. I could just use their plug in line.
            “Oh no, we don’t have that either. We really don’t need it except for work, so we just use it there”. Okay. This wouldn’t be a problem. Most of my time here would be spent out working anyway. I declined the invitation to watch another NCIS episode – I didn’t want a hangover – and excused myself for bed. The morning, however, held a new surprise. Overnight, 18 inches (or 46cm in that ridiculous metric system the rest of the world uses. I mean, what kind of idiot thought of using powers of ten as conversions? 12 inches to a foot, three feet to a yard, and 1760 yards to the mile makes so much more sense) had fallen – the most since 1976. There was no way school would be held in those conditions. A full 24 hours of daytime talk shows and soaps laid before me, I started to feel a little overwhelmed and isolated, until I received the good news: my hosts had just had a new grandson born. We were going into town to visit him. As you could expect, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Who doesn’t want to go and meet the four-hour-old grandchild of people I have known for 12 hours? Still, it was nice to get out of the house, and seeing piles of snow taller than me really was quite a sight.
            When I arrived at the hospital, my host mum told me that only family would be allowed into the room. Partly I was pleased with this. No awkward “Hi, I’ve never met you before, but congratulations on your new arrival”. Plus, I had made sure I was prepared for a wait, and had brought a book and my laptop. I made myself comfortable in the waiting room (as comfortable as one can be in a maternity ward where you are confronted with the sounds of childbirth every time a door is opened) and opened my computer with baited breath. And then…the Holy Grail. A guest wireless network. I spent the next two hours blissfully emerged in the glories of Skype, Facebook, and The Age Online. I practically had to be dragged out when my host mother had had her fill of doting.

            Apart from being returned to the technological Dark Ages, and the strange hospital visit, my snow days (the storm was bad enough that school was cancelled for two days) were really quite fun. The scenery was beautiful, and I took a couple of late-night snow walks, which is a really beautiful thing to do. The highlight, however, was my snow angel. The snow angel is a rite of passage for most Americans living north of Nashville, and so of course I had to take my turn. With my host mum photographing every moment, I lay down in 50cm-deep snow and flapped my arms and legs around for a few seconds. I pulled myself out (painstakingly) and looked at my perfectly formed angel. For the next few minutes, I morphed into the Aeroplane Jelly kid, running around with my arms widespread, shouting “Look at the snow angel! It’s an angel! And it’s in the snow! And I made it! ME!” Eventually I calmed down enough to head inside park myself on the couch – tonight’s offering was re-runs of 1960s police dramas. Joy.

A snow pile nearly my height - Downtown Chicago

            Last Friday, after six weeks, we finally left the state of Michigan. Destination: Chicago. The five-hour drive was not particularly awe inspiring, and in fact quite body-stiffening, but by the time the city became visible through our car windows, all our ailments were forgotten, as we had another snow angel moment, whooping, jumping (as much as our seatbelts would allow) and uncontrollably singing Chicago by Frank Sinatra. On arriving at our hosts’ homes, the feeling only escalated. We were stationed right in the city, just minutes from the ‘loop’ (Chicagoan for the main CBD), with families who were welcoming, knowledgeable, interesting and excited about hosting us. They also turned out to be incredible tour guides – we had the weekend off, so we braved the piles of snow and -20˚C ‘heat’ to see the sights – who could name the architects, years of construction, and current use of all the buildings. The experience was brilliant – to finally be in a major centre, seeing historic and internationally important landmarks, viewing globally acclaimed art, and eating food from every culture known to man was simply phenomenal. Time spent in the host family homes was equally as wonderful, with a sing-along party, Super Bowl party, and plenty of socialising organised for us.

            When it finally came time for us to work, we were immediately confronted with the fact that Chicago is quite a divided city. Our families were residents of the North Side – comfortable, affluent and leafy, with a great many opportunities for students (our host families’ children, all of whom were 16 or under, were already virtuosic musicians, stunning dancers and near-fluent in another language), whereas our first assignment, a high school on the South Side, was rough. The students were mainly from minority groups and poor families. Many had never left Chicago, some never ventured beyond their own neighbourhood. Due to escalating violence amongst the students, ID tags were compulsory for everyone, all bags had to be see-through so they could be easily checked for weapons and drugs, and knives, including plastic or silverware, were absolutely prohibited from campus. The students we worked with generally fell into two groups: those who obviously couldn’t care less, and those who were just so enthusiastic and grateful for the opportunity to work with us. So it was difficult – performing to an audience with even one disinterested spectator can be difficult, to two-thirds of an audience can be absolute hell. Yet for the hope and joy we instilled in maybe just a few students, hope that there is more in the world than the South Side of Chicago, it may have been the most rewarding, humbling experience we’ve had.

            Given the not-so-light nature of the end of this blog, I feel it’s only appropriate to end with a joke.
A woman goes out for a night out on the town. Having promised her husband that she would be home by midnight, she stumbles in just as the clock in the hall chimes three times. Thinking on her feet, she quickly adds nine chimes of her own, before getting into bed next to her still sleeping husband. Job well done.
            The next morning over breakfast, the husband says to his wife “What time did you make it home last night?”
“Midnight,” the wife lies. “Did you hear me come in?”
“No. Slept right through.”
Pleased she has dodged a bullet, the wife smiles and continues with her breakfast, until the silence is broken again by the husband,
 “I think we need a new clock.”
“Oh! Why is that dear?” the wife replies.
“Well, last night, our clock chimed three times, said ‘oh no’, then chimed another four times, farted, chimed three more times, took a swig out of the flowerpot, chimed twice more and fell over the coffee table.”

            Reminds me of my mother…