Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Last Hurrah?

We did it!

Exactly six months ago, I arrived a rather intimidated young man into the most ubiquitous country in the world, slightly frightened of being 15,000 kilometres away from my home, a little saddened at being in transit on Christmas Day instead of eating Nana’s Christmas dinner, but also excited for six months of wall-to-wall travel across an incredibly unique and diverse country, and at the fact there was snow on the ground. It may have been only two hours long, but I had a White Christmas, damnit. I remember up until the week before leaving, I didn’t quite realise the gravity of the task I was undertaking. My thought process had me believing that I was off for a brief sojourn in the noble USA, staying with a few people here and there, sing a bit, argue politics a bit, back home in no time. Then, with about seven days left before the trip began, it hit me a little. I was saying goodbye to my family and friends for seven months. Without a break (for a University student, going one month without a break is unthinkable, let alone seven). There was going to be no familiarity, no home bed, no footy, no Lygon St, no walks to the beach with the dog. By the time I arrived in Detroit, I was catatonic. All of a sudden the trip seemed insurmountable. For quite a while the days dragged, the nights were worse, and I cast an unfairly cynical eye over everything different (and sometimes even similar) in American society and culture. Six months ago, I could hardly imagine sitting down on my last night in the country, writing a final entry about my experiences. But here I am, the strange feeling of leaving familiar surroundings has returned, and I’m about to start the next big adventure – a month in Europe, all on my own. So, in the spirit of reminiscing and celebrating all that has happened during our Singers of United Lands 2011 tour, here are a few highlights and interesting occurrences I’ve yet to share.

·      Finding out the wrong way that the toilet I was using had a built-in bidet (Chicago, Illinois). Nothing quite like getting a surprise clean when you’re reaching for the toilet paper.
·      Silencing a group of middle-schoolers by telling them the reason I can sing so high is that ‘I never quite made it through puberty’ (near Detroit, Michigan).
·      Going to the only African-American Military History Museum in North America, and walking through impoverished black neigbourhoods, and being welcomed like family into every open door (Hattiesburg, Mississippi).
·      Being down in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. On the other hand, it was also humbling to see one part of the city buzzing, whilst the other half was still struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans, Louisiana).
·      Attempting to explain Constitutional Monarchy to a group of Fourth Graders, only to have the answer to my question ‘What to you have in the US instead of the Queen’ being ‘Freedom!’ I deserved it. (Clermont, Florida). It was interesting, however, to see how many Americans got so excited about the Royal Wedding just a few weeks later. A celebrity’s a celebrity, no matter how they get there.
·      Disney World (Orlando, Florida). Enough said.
·      Receiving marriage proposals from audience members at a high school concert (St. Augustine, Florida). Ask again in ten years, girls.
·      Being followed by tornadoes and storms from Florida and New York, but during that time, seeing some of the US’ most well-kept secrets of beauty in North Carolina and Tennessee.
·      Walking around Washington, DC, for an entire day, non-stop, and taking in some of the most important history of the USA. We also got within 100m of the President. We’re that special. (Washington, DC)
·      New York. Specifically, seeing two Broadway shows, a comedy show, walking around Times Square and Midtown, performing at the Australian Consulate (where I could finally let loose with all the Australian humour and obscure references), and seeing three of my high school teachers in a taxi (New York City, New York). Talk about a small world.
·      Stumbling through terrible French (usually to be rebuffed in bitingly acerbic English) in the beautiful, Euope-esque cities of Montreal and Québec (Montreal and Québec City, Québec, Canada).
·      Getting back to nature near beautiful lakes and coastline in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada).

In the past six months, we have visited 24 US states (plus Washington, DC), 4 Canadian provinces, and driven about 28,000 kilometres. I stayed with 51 host families, almost universally wonderful, and sang countless numbers of shows for possibly tens of thousands of people. My Facebook friend count has almost doubled (very important for a nineteen-year-old in 2011). Most of all, I spent six months with people I am so happy and proud to call my friends and colleagues, people I know will go on to do great things.

I never thought I would say this six months ago, but, USA, I’m going to miss you. Maybe I won’t miss your gross contradictions, you obsession with materialism, your overt reliance on cars and trucks big enough to take on army tanks, your fixation with fast and fried food, your decimation of natural land to build monstrous houses, roads, freeways, and strip malls; and your loud, obnoxious, and sometimes misplaced, patriotism. But I will most definitely miss your breathtaking natural beauty, your fierce defence of your way of life, your pizzazz and confidence, and most of all, I will miss the unmatched kindness, friendliness, and hospitality of your people, Illinois to Alabama, Vermont to Florida, and everywhere in between. I couldn’t have lasted six months without feeling as welcome as I did almost everywhere we went. I’m not going to say goodbye, because I know we’ll meet again. So I’ll just say see you later, be safe, stay happy, and thank you. Thank you for giving me the ride of a lifetime.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hospitality Mark II

 From making S'mores on the lake. All in a week's work.

About 23 weeks ago, I outlined my initial experiences with American hospitality in my first-ever blog. In hindsight, my initial summary may have been somewhat skewed by the fact that I had just arrived to a frigid northern winter, for six months, knowing nobody, the Poms winning the cricket, and having interacted only with people at airports, who, let’s face it, aren’t really people. From the moment you arrive at an airport to the moment you leave (be it at that one or another), you are in some form of suspended animation, which I have decided is a natural reaction to the knowledge that the next part of your life is going to be filled with suspicious glances, awkward prodding, plastic masquerading as food, and at least one film starring Matthew McConaughey. Don’t get me wrong, I love airports and flying – the thought that somehow a huge plane weighing thousands of tonnes, laden with hundreds of passengers and their luggage, can make it into the air and halfway across the world, blows my mind. It’s just a shame they have to make it so damned uncomfortable. But I digress. After five months of travel in the USA, and stays with 45 separate hosts, I have certainly come to greatly appreciate the wonderful hospitality that was extended to us almost everywhere. However, the Yanks have got a way to go before they can match their northern neighbours.

Apart from our initial issues with overzealous border officers in Quebec and a cold shoulder when testing out my French in Montreal (‘Un burger au poulet, s’il vous plait,’ I politely requested at the restaurant, in what I thought was impeccable French, only to have a sneer shot my way and ‘A chicken burger? Four ninety-five,’ as a response. Zero points for trying.), Canadians have been so overwhelmingly friendly that it’s almost enough to make you sick. To all those Canadians who get upset at the rest of the world stereotyping them as kind, polite pushovers, well, sorry guys, but you’re not doing yourself any favours. My first host mother, in Montreal, was actually offended that I didn’t ask her to do more for me – as if her getting up at 6.30 (she was an 80-year-old retiree) to ensure I got a nourishing breakfast before performing wasn’t enough. The Montrealers were just ridiculously kind to us in general. As soon as we arrived at our meeting point, sandwiches, brownies and tea were shoved down our throats, despite it being an hour after our lunch, and, as it would turn out, just an hour before dinner, which we were required to partake in, with copious amounts of wine (at least they had the foresight to buy a good Aussie chardonnay). We were taken to concerts, had dinner parties hosted in our honour, and were encouraged to generally run amok in the beautiful city. Montreal is one of those wonderful places where worlds combine – leave the Metro stations (which in themselves form a vast underground city) and you could be in any of countless North American cities, but walk a few blocks and you could be in Hong Kong. Another few blocks and it’s Paris, and a little further along I was back in Melbourne. Coupled with friendly Canadians (almost) everywhere, it was a brilliant start to our Canadian experience.

From Quebec, it was off to New Brunswick, the gateway to the ‘Maritime’ provinces of Canada. Due to their relatively small area and population, and their distance from major Canadian cities, the Maritimes have developed a unique dialect and small-town friendly culture, even in the ‘larger’ centres. Our first stop was McAdam, a tiny village just across the Maine border, and one of the strange kind of stops we endure once in a while whereby we arrive lateish in the evening, sleep, get up early in the morning, and leave. Usually this involves ‘Here’s the bed, ask if you need anything,’ a bit of idle chatter, sleeping, a quick breakfast, and off again. Not in McAdam, New Brunswick. We were shown to our rooms, and allowed to settle down. Then the barrage began.
‘So,’ began our host. ‘I’ve got beer, wine, soda, juice, water…beer…what’ll it be?’ We thanked him, but declined the offer. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘but the offer’s still on the table. Let me know, eh?’ We promised we would. Ten minutes later he was asking again.
‘Still a no on that beer, eh?’ It was still a no, so he kept quiet on it. For about five minutes.
‘Boys! Are you sure you don’t want a beer?’ We were quite sure, thank you very much, we didn’t really drink that much so we were happy. He did ask us a couple more times, just for good measure, and we were actually surprised we weren’t having beer for breakfast. Instead he took us (who he had known a total of 10 hours) out for breakfast, parting ways with a ‘right on’ (apparently a Maritime ‘good on ya, mate’), and handing over to one of his friends, who took us to her lakeside cabin for an evening, where we were treated like absolute royalty, although it must be said that it seems every visitor to Canada is treated as absolute royalty. No sooner had we arrived was coffee and morning tea on the table, and as soon as these were done lunch was up. Immediately lunch was over she was down dragging out kayaks so we could go for a scenic paddle, then scooting back up to prepare dinner. Dinner done, it was off to collect wood for the lakeside fire, and then up to get supplies for preparing S’mores (a wonderful North American invention combining toasted marshmallows, melted chocolate, and biscuits – trust them to mix three fatty, sugary things together). The next day it all repeated: bumper breakfast, morning tea, and lunch. Any offers to help were spurned, any insistences of help were met with being assigned some kind of menial task, followed by copious amounts of praise for being so helpful. Either this woman was an angel, or having a red hot crack at martyrdom.

Being surrounded by such friendliness everywhere I went had the direct effect of heightening my already prominent cynicism (as demonstrated by the above comment), to the point that I went prowling for any chink in the armour of kindness. And, as happens to most people rabidly pursuing evidence of some crackpot hypothesis, last Saturday I thought I found one. I had been staying with a couple in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a port city on the Atlantic Ocean that I believe is a perfect setting for a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. It is also well-renowned for its lobsters, and to this end, my host mother, a strict vegan, decided to buy and cook lobsters for all five of us. Despite not being an economist, lobster fisherman, or vegan, I deducted that this was rather a big thing she was doing for us. I decided to probe her about it.
‘Well, y’know, lobster’s big here in Nova Scotia, eh, and I just thought it’d be fun to watch you guys struggle your way through ’em. Bit of entertainment for me, y’know?’

Gotcha. I had all the evidence I needed to denounce the friendly nature of Canadians as self-serving and indulgent. How dare they buy, and cook, us all lobster for dinner, if their motive was to enjoy themselves? Incensed, I was ready to launch a prosaic tirade. Until the next day, I spied the gift my host family had bought me. Hang on. They had bought me a gift for staying with them, sleeping in their spare bed, eating their food, for a week. After spending a week offering everything they could, instead of bidding me farewell and thanking heavens that they didn’t have to do any more, they just decided to keep giving. This time, most definitely not for any personal gain. My argument was shot. I had to retract my previous thought of launching a salvo into the stereotype of the USA’s northern neighbours, and instead write a blog about the wonderful hospitality we’ve experienced the past three weeks. Damn Canadians.