Friday, 7 May 2010

Land of the free

From the back of the taxi, he took it all in. Kids playing baseball in the school field. The stars and stripes flying at every turn. A little way earlier up the road they'd passed a burger joint that looked like it came straight out of a 50's Sc-Fi movie. The Silver Diner.

"If there's one thing you can say for sure about the USA", said the cab driver, in a heavy Indian accent, "it's that from the moment you arrive, to the moment you leave, it
feels like America."

"Yeah, er, right mate", said Denis as he flinched at the ridiculously sized SUV that had just cut across two lanes and slammed the breaks on in front of them. "This is definitely a country which is not confused about its identity." Which was something, he mused silently to himself, that you definitely couldn't say about Britain any more...

* * *

America. 3 years since my I'd last set foot in 'the land of the free' and my 19th visit about as many years. Some of those visits have been for pleasure, others have been for business, still others have been for personal reasons which were neither business nor pleasure. This time was a mix of all three.

On the first leg of my journey I stayed with my very close friends, Ron & Sharon, in the Washington DC area. It's one of my usual stops. I enjoy their company and they enjoy mine. Over the years I've been privileged to have been accepted as a surrogate member of the family and despite my various oddities and overall weirdness, they've never been judgemental and have always had time for me when the chips were down. I wouldn't be the person I am now without their friendship and for that I will be eternally thankful.

Life in the suburbs of DC hasn't really changed much since my first to the area visit 15 years ago. OK, so the trees have grown, the neighbourhood's have developed somewhat and things are noticeably more expensive. The core elements, however, are essentially still the same. Recently built cul-de-sacs nearby open-plan shopping complexes, centred around
a handful of large chain stores. Big homes with twin garages, wooden decks and barbecues out the back. Aside from style differences in the architecture, it's pretty much Anytown, USA.

It's nice. Its modern. Its clean. Its relatively crime free. Alas, it is a little bit bland.

Still, there are much worse places in the world. Much worse. Trust me, I've lived in some of them. Would I live here? Sure. Would I be happy? Probably not. I'm a city kid and these kind of communities are not the city. Perfect, if you want to raise a family. Terrible, if you are a single young professional who doesn't drive.

Still, I come to visit often because I enjoy the difference. Maybe that's why I'm able to reflect so much when I'm there. I spend a lot of time thinking, resolving, determining and generally straightening out my life. The day to day here is such a world away from what I'm used to that it helps me put things in perspective. And believe me when I say that I often need to do that.

My next stop on this trip was was Richmond, Virginia. Only a hundred miles south of Washington DC, but it feels like a thousand. Richmond was - is - the capital of the Confederate South. Now, for Europeans this, at first, seems strange. To us, the term 'southern states'
leaves us thinking in literal terms: Texas, Florida, California. Places that butt up against the Mexican border. But it terms of the US civil war, the south back then started just a little way north of Washington DC. A mythical border called 'the Mason-Dixon' line.

Richmond feels like the south. The architecture, the accents, the social sensibilities. It's such an amazing contrast from DC that it's a bit mind blowing at first. Even though I've visited there several times in the past, I find myself staring at things constantly and marvelling at the differences. Which one is the real America? Neither I suspect, but Richmond feels a lot closer to the kind of world I'm used to in Europe than most other places I've been in the USA. It's regular folk, struggling to stay above water, doing what they can to survive.

Unfortunately, if you are looking to encounter racial divides & bigotry anywhere in the USA, here is a good place to start. After you've been there a while, you start to realise (at least I did, as someone of mixed race) that not everyone approves of 'love across the gene pool'.

My friends who live there, Mugsy & Robbie, are far from that character type though, (and I do wonder why they live there) and represent the other side of that town - bohemian, liberated, free thinking and counter culture.

Richmond is definitely not bland. Would I live there? No. If I was forced too, would I be happy? Probably! Weird, huh?

My final stop in the USA was Orlando, Florida. Or should I say Disney World. I came to visit a friend and pay my first visit to the kingdom of the mouse.

I couldn't have picked a better place to contrast the other two. A manufactured environment, designed in the last century by one of the world's great dreamers. Orlando is the USA as imagined by Walt Disney. A place where dreams come true. And it is - if you're looking for a
perfect, fairytale existence. It delivers exactly what it promises. Good, wholesome family living
and entertainment. I couldn't find fault in that regard.

Now, I'm possibly sounding a bit cynical here, but i assure you that's not my intention. I had a great time in Florida, and I'm especially thankful to my hosts - The Johnson Family - for taking care of me, showing me around and welcoming me into their home. As families go, I've seldom met a nicer, kinder group of people.

The kids range from 8 to 17 in age (with ages 11, 13 & 15 in between) and are smart, funny & polite. Mum & dad should be - and I think they are - proud. I wish all families were like the Johnsons - the world would be a much better place for it.

As for the Disney experience... I think that deserves an entry of it's own to do it justice...