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.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

‘United’ States of America? A New York Experience.

Southern Louisiana to New York City - are we in the same country?

As I was walking the streets of Manhattan last weekend, I had a revelation (I know it’s slightly self-indulgent and clichéd to start with that, but I just couldn’t help myself). I had been told from the moment I was accepted into S.O.U.L. that the USA is an extremely diverse country, with different landscapes, people, motivations, attitudes and accents just a few miles (or to use that evil metric system, kilometres) from each other, yet for a long time I just didn’t recognise it. Certainly, I noticed the scenery and conditions change from the depressing, flat, steamy cropland and wetlands of the Deep South, to the tawdry faux-tropicana of Florida’s Gulf Coast, then the awe-inspiring hills and mountains of the Carolinas and the Northeast, to the urban jungle that is New York. It was also fairly obvious to hear the accents change from the lazy, ‘y’all’-riddled drawl of Mississippi and Louisiana, to the obnoxious New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania dialect. But really that’s all fairly facile, taken on appearance stuff that a six-year-old could notice. The cultural change is much more subtle, and far more interesting.

The reason it took until a mild spring evening in Midtown Manhattan, the trees in full bloom, the streets packed with people, (self-indulgent again, but trust me, once you’ve been to New York, it’s hard not to be) is quite simple. New York City, Manhattan in particular, is capitalism personified. In its opulent Art Deco highrises, glitzy shopping strips, myriad limousines, flashing billboards and neon lights, you see the products of capitalist successes, and just what money can buy. A prime example of this is Donald Trump’s tower. Everything in it carries his name and/or trademark quiff somewhere – from the Trumpstraunt, to Donald’s Suites (just as an aside, every Democrat in the US is currently despairing over the Trumpiantor’s decision not to run for President. Because let’s face it, if he had won the nomination, Obama was a sure thing. Nobody was going to vote for a bloke whose defining feature is his ability to shout ‘You’re fired!’ at some poor hapless five-minutes-of-famer without being laughed at for his ranga combover and equally red face). Yet at the same time, you are assaulted by capitalism’s pitfalls – the thousands of homeless, the rent and property prices so high everyone is forced out except wealthy executives and spoilt yuppies.

It’s not that Southerners aren’t fans of capitalism, quite the opposite in fact. If you even suggested something like universal healthcare in some areas of the South, you’ll probably return without your head. No, many people from the South just seem to be opposed to people doing well out of capitalism. What they don’t realise is that under the tenets of capitalism, or at least the laissez-faire style of it that is favoured by so many Americans, that’s what happens. You are supposed to make as much money as you damn well can. Charlie Sheen would call it ‘winning’. New York is a prime example of how capitalism is supposed to work – reward those who do well and screw everyone else. That, in my experience, wasn’t the case in much of the South. Their attitude was that they should have all the benefits of free market competition, like cheap stuff at Wal-Mart (made in China, mind you), but they shouldn’t have to be padding the cheques of those grubby New York execs, because they just don’t know how hard honest Americans have to work, gosh darn it. That in fact brings me to my next observation: New York is a hotbed of political and social liberalism. Most New Yorkers would probably favour wealth equalisation, in the form of sliding-scale taxation, free healthcare, and taxes on pollution, which are condemned by so many conservatives as socialism (I’d like to point out right now that I am not trying to make outlandish assumptions about the politics of the South. The bottom line is that most areas of the South are staunchly Republican, the party which, since Obama has been elected, has had electoral success in branding him and his backers ‘socialist’ for trying to implement policies such as Obamacare. On the other hand, in last year’s drubbing of the Democrats both federally and locally, New York still returned Democratic senators, House representatives, and a governor, with resounding margins). Capital punishment is not practised there, legalised abortion and same-sex unions are, and there is a genuine feeling of connection with your fellow man that I feel is missing in so many parts of this country – something which I have absolutely no doubt is directly related to the fact that New Yorkers use their cars so much less than anyone else in the USA.

There are also no taboos in New York – we went to a comedy show one Saturday night where for the most part we were subjected to racial profiling, lewd sex stories, and anecdotes of alcoholism and cocaine addictions that, if mentioned in many other places, would leave you with an orange jumpsuit and a one-way ticket to the state penitentiary. And although much of the show left me squirming and my sheltered Australian conscience seriously confronted, it would seem that this unfettered style of interaction works far better than the staid, cautious way of approaching issues of race favoured by many other states. When we were in Alabama and Mississippi, and to a lesser extent, Louisiana, there were definite ‘black’, ‘white’, and ‘Hispanic’ neighbourhoods and schools. In Michigan, it was ‘white’ schools and ‘Arab’ schools. I was even told by one family that they were concerned at the level of black students in their school, as they didn’t want the academic performance at their school to drop, as, according to them, the non-white schools in their district were the equivalent to third world. No questioning why, no show of dismay, just a statement of fact. Whilst there are still some signs of segregation in New York, it is far less than the signs that integration is alive and working. The schools we went to were ethnically diverse, people were friends because they liked each other, and we actually saw families of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds – something which was notably missing in many areas we visited, where family groups were far more likely to be quite homogenous. The Big Apple is indeed a world apart from parts of its own country in so many ways. Of course, to be fair, the Big Apple is a world apart from, well, just about anywhere.

I thought I might finish with a cute little anecdote related to everyone’s favourite whipping boy – mass media. New York is the undisputed home of the Western media – the headquarters of most national networks are there, and some international – News Corporation immediately springs to mind. Aussie Rupert has called NYC home since the 70s. They can keep him. However, it would seem that the New York doesn’t have quite the power over national media the world thinks it does. Way back in early February, when Australia and South America were being ravaged by floods, fires and mudslides, the northern half of the US, Canada, and Europe were grappling with the heaviest snow storms since the release of Ice Age, and Congress were coming to terms with the new reality of a Democratic administration and Senate, and a Republican House, we were in Alabama. And what was the headline news in Alabama? A dead tree. No joke. Apparently it was significant tree to one of the universities there, and there was talk that an alumnus of its major competitor had deliberately killed it. In the words of Ron Weasley (note in the following quote, ‘she’ refers to the Alabama media): ‘She has got to get her priorities right.’

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Weather and Weddings

Storm damage (left) and what we think caused it (right)           

 During our six-month tour, our main method of travel is a white Ford Transit – think the Popemobile without the glassed-in standing box. Affectionately known as the ‘S.O.U.L. Train’ (a name which never fails to spur giggling fits from anyone born between 1955 and 1991), it would in fact be more comfortable if we were able to travel in it a la His Holiness, standing up and waving to the over-70s in their RVs with Quebec license plates as we pass them, instead of the conventional sitting down position undertaken by most travellers. As it stands (pardon the pun), getting in and out of the van, and in fact even moving about once in, involves a Cirque du Soleil-esque contortionist sequence, dodging pillows, laptops, and gigantic Red Bull cans. Making the experience all the more difficult is the absolute silence and poignance required to ensure anyone who can push through the pain and stiffness enough to actually sleep is not disturbed, and the single-minded concentration that is needed to ensure the gas you’ve been holding in for the past two and a half hours doesn’t escape prematurely. You may scoff at this, but with all the processed, fattening American food we are eating, flatulence is a real issue, and the last thing we need is to turn our five cubic metre space into a Dutch Oven.

            It may seem from my opening remarks that we really despise the S.O.U.L. Train, but this actually couldn’t be further from the truth. We love the thing. When you’re staying in a different place on average every three nights, with your suitcase, laptop, and fellow singers the only other constants in your life, it becomes something of a refuge, a place where you can actually feel some sort of familiarity. Plus, there’s no better team building exercise than sitting squashed in a van for five hours or more, a Canadian sprawled all over you, with a Colombian fro managing to touch every sensitive part of your face with just five strands of hair. It is also the focal point of some of the most exciting experiences we’ve had for the past couple of months: the weather. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I am certain that our innocuous-looking Ford Transit is in fact a magnet for torrential rain, thunderstorms, and tornadoes. It all started on the last weekend in February, when we decided to drive from New Orleans to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to visit friends we had made a few weeks earlier. It was somewhat overcast as we began to head out of the city, but as soon as we drew away from the city, the heavens opened like you could never imagine. While we were on a bridge. With roadworks. Over what seemed like an ocean-sized lake. Kayla, the pocket-sized Canadian, was at the helm, and despite her protestations that she kept calm, her hands had to be wrenched off the wheel at the end of the trip, and for most of the two hour journey, she didn’t blink or speak, save for muttering expletives under her breath (or at full volume every time a truck passed). However, we made it safely to Hattiesburg, and were happy that we had weathered what would, of course, be the worst storm we would experience for the remainder of the trip. How wrong we were.

            Although we weren’t to have another onset of bad weather for about a month after our New Orleans/Hattiesburg experience, when it returned, it came back with a vengeance. And it still hasn’t left. It all started during our week in Clermont, Florida, just near Disney World. One morning, we emerged from our houses to dark skies. No real worry. Then, at about lunchtime, the tornado ‘watch’ was announced – meaning there would be wind and rain, and that a tornado could develop, but it wasn’t likely. The watch, however, was quickly upgraded to a ‘warning’, the legal definition of which is ‘Storm’s a’comin’, Uncle Henry’. Hatches were battened down, windows were moved away from, and an initially sedate performance for a group of third graders became a sea of kids screaming, crying, and burrowing under desks as though the Second Cold War had just begun. The storm ultimately passed without event, however it was the first tornado warning the area had had in more than a decade. Our hosts joked that we had brought the weather with us. We laughed politely, secretly telling them to learn some better jokes. The next day the storms were back, this time whist we were enjoying the Epcot Centre at Disney World. We noticed the sky darkening and the wind picking up, but this to us just meant no queues of fair-weather Floridians, and thus more rides and attractions. What we didn’t realise was that whilst we were marveling at the Sound, Sight, and Smell Science Railway, a twister passed through the park, rendering it more or less empty. We had a blast in the eerily quiet park, and for a few days, tornadoes were our friend. Amazing how quickly a friend can become an enemy though, as after two more tornado warnings in less than a week, one of which part of a system containing tennis-ball sized hail which resulted in our dear van’s windscreen shattering, not to mention a dint-riddled bonnet (the ‘hood’ to any Americans reading this). Now it was at the point where we were fairly paranoid that we (or at least the van) were the cause of the poor weather, although given none of us had ever seen anything bigger than the willy-willys that float around country Victoria now and again, there was some slight excitement that we might see a real life tornado.

            The height of our stormy chapter came at the end of April, in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Set in rolling, forested hills in the ‘Upland South’, these leafy, picturesque, and surprisingly cosmopolitan cities are some of the USA’s best-kept secrets. They had also, up until our arrival, not had serious tornadoes since the late 1970s. Enter S.O.U.L. 2011 and their trusty weather magnet. Within 24 hours of our arrival, 29 tornadoes of varying strength and destruction had ripped through the region, causing the deaths of an estimated 24 people, including the tragic deaths of three young brothers trapped in a caravan. Closer to home, the damage was mercifully only material, with one of our host homes having two trees crash through its roof whist its occupants were out. Driving through the area later that evening, it was eerie to see so many traffic lights out, trees felled, and power lines strewn across the road – vibrant Raleigh had become a war zone in the space of hours. It really is indescribable. Still, it didn’t stop the locals from hitting the spots that hadn’t been damaged, and given that Sergio was without power, we thought we might join them for a few hours. Arriving at a sushi restaurant/bar as a starting point, Sergio’s unmissable hair immediately became an asset – as he was walking out of the loo, he was approached by a gentleman who had quite obviously been indulging for quite a while. As the conversation became more animated, we thought we had best saunter over to inspect the hubbub. Saunter we did, and what we found was that our inebriated friend had taken a shine to the fro, and wished for us to join his entourage – he would pay all our expenses at every place we went to. Calculating the risks versus reward, we came to the conclusion that our trusty van was about twenty steps away, and we had an Iraq veteran as a manager – why not test it out. We could always cut and run. It turned out to be the best decision of the night – it turned out the bloke had be ‘recruiting’ all night, and had eight previous strangers with him – all of us laughing and sharing stories within ten minutes. He did indeed pick up the tab – although for two underagers, the most entertainment we could derive from that was to watch the others slamming down beer, followed by mixers and jager bombs whist politely sipping Coke. Still, it was a wonderful night, and having been treated by celebrities by people who weren’t still at elementary school, we went home feeling smugly happy. At least our stormy experiences ultimately reaped some entertaining and unexpected results.
I thought I would finish off by mentioning the Royal Wedding – the other topic of choice of the media before the bin Laden firestorm (and I’m not touching that one with a 10 metre cattle-prodder). The coverage of the two actually got to such a saturation point that on CNN last weekend, the Saturday anchor switched from one to the other with this segue:
                        ‘Speaking of tornadoes, a whirlwind of romance erupted in London earlier this morning…
You get the picture – insensitive and unimaginative. Mass media at its most typical. Irrespective of the terrible linkage of the two events, the American obsession over the nuptials of Wills and Kate still amazes me. For a country so fiercely proud of their independence, these guys sure love a royal party, even if it is just to gawk at the get-ups of the bride, groom, and guests. One woman with whom I dicussed the wedding was extremely eloquent in her descriptions of the many images we were bombarded with here: Kate’s dress (and the bride herself): ‘How pretty! In an English sort of way’. On the hats worn by most women in attendance (save for that naughty Samantha Cameron): ‘Oh! How British!’ On the ceremony itself: ‘So Anglican!’ And on it went – I got the feeling she was the kind of woman who gives a white room a beige feature wall so she can have some contrast. Whilst I was not personally swept up in wedding fever, it did give me some great fodder for our presentations: I was able to rib audiences about their excitement over a wedding of two people who are, in reality, insignificant to Americans. To counter this, I usually suggest, why doesn’t the USA reconsider becoming a Commonwealth Realm? Big mistake. I am generally met with scowls, frantic head-shaking, and the occasional boo. As a result of these adverse reactions, I have come up with a far better solution. Why doesn’t William run for US President? I have no doubt a British Royal running for US President would go down extremely well – just ask Donald Trump.