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On all manner of things

Added: 1-7-2006 0

Well, I've threatened to write essays in this section but actually sitting down to plan and write an essay I can be proud of has proved difficult in this time of World Cup. I figure essays, or longer pieces of writing will come along when the time is right, and in the meantime I'll just use this section to put down musings, a fancy word for a few early thoughts on what America has thrown up in our faces.

Before reading the following I figure it's important to point out just how we are encountering these subjects. You have to picture us – two six foot tall blokes with massive rucksacks, both sporting hats, one guy with a guitar strapped to his bag, and both guys lumbering along at a pretty slow pace, sometimes next to each other, sometimes not. This sight has been enough to cause the people of Delaware, Maryland and Washington DC to gawp, wave, shout or beep their carhorns, and we have never been short of inquiring looks for the month we have been here.

Now that you can imagine what we look like you should imagine what we're walking on, and what we're walking past. Without over generalising, 90% of the first part of our walk has all been all on roads, mostly small 'B' type country roads but also some pretty fast moving 'A' type roads. We've also walked through small villages, small towns and, now that we're in Washington DC, there are neighbourhoods, suburbs and strip malls to walk through and gawk at. Sometimes our roads are through fields, perhaps with a good mile between houses, and sometimes they've been through woods, many times with a large amount of litter besides the road. The temperatures when we've been doing this have been, generally speaking, bakingly hot.

Where have we been staying I hear you ask. Well, we've got our tents and we're pitching them wherever we can. We've stayed in fields next to houses in small towns, farmer's fields in the middle of nowhere (in a huge storm) and campsites that we haven't had to pay for. When we've been really lucky we've been able to take advantage of the immense hospitality of people we've met on the road, bunking down in college dorms or in spare rooms; when we've been unlucky we've stayed in the Chesapeake Motel.

And who have we met? Well, we've met a load of people, no denying. Just by being two weird figures in people's everyday landscape we are able to encourage people into conversations, into headnods, or into waves. It's been amazing to experience. We've met librarians, shopkeepers, waitresses, motorists, handymen, farmers, Christians, kids, barmen, teachers, documentary film makers, dogs, rocket scientists, neighbours, economists, lawyers, development aid specialists, joggers, bicyclists, and monks. We've met Republicans and we've met (mostly) Democrats. We've met way more people than I expected who were into football.

And on the way we've of course been talking – about all of the above and how we've interacted with people, but also we've been directly asking people about our pet interests: music, politics, football, religion and, yes, America's role in the world. Eventually all of the things we've pondered and discussed are gonna take some sort of coherent format. Or at least I sincerely hope they will. In the meantime I'm just gonna take the easy option and throw some first impressions in to some nice library-like subject categories – it's way easier this way for me to keep track of the things I'm thinking about.

(NB. anyone who thinks that the following is 'scientific' is barking up the wrong tree; personal observations are all that you will find below. With the odd Internet link, of course)

On George W. Bush

Let's get him out the way first eh? Thus far 99% of the people we have spoken to about the President have gone to great lengths to stress that he does not enjoy the support of anywhere near the amount of people that we in Europe might suspect. It was even opined by one person that the administration in Washington is so efficient, cunning and secretive that the running of the government can continue with its plans without too many people realising that other people don't like what's going on either. Regardless of the veracity of this opinion we only found one person who supported Bush, a gentleman from rural Delaware. He was staunchly (yet endearingly – my own preconceptions were indeed blown out of the water during our time in his company) Republican yet his son-in-law, who we also met, was a Democrat (even if his solution to the Iraq war – nuke the area – made him somewhat less liberal than we thought he would be). The son-in-law and his wife knew people who had recently served in Iraq, and all of the family talked about generational political differences – no different to Europe there then?

But mostly people seem a little embarrassed about the President when pressed closely. In keeping with something I read one of the Dixie Chicks say the other day, it seems most people I've spoken to about it would be happier with a President who has done better in their SATs than they have. You know, someone who knows a little geography, for example.

On Politics

I was very wrong to think that people might not be happy discussing politics. We have been able to get into political discussions very quickly with many people we have met and covered topics such as taxation, healthcare, foreign investment and, of course, war (see below). What has struck me most, however, is the political identity side of things. People have been only too happy, for example, to declare themselves Republican or Democrat. OK, at this point the sample of Republicans is completely rubbish, in that we've met only one 'real' one, but the point I want to make here is that people we have spoken to identify themselves as a Democrat in conversation – a kind of declaration of whose team they are on. This is odd to me as an Englishman as I am more used to people going to great lengths to blur their political leanings somewhat – hardly anyone I have ever met would declare "I vote Labour" or "I vote Conservative" in a conversation with a stranger.

Another thing which I have to mention is the difference, to European ears, is the use of the term 'Liberal'. 'Liberal' over here seems to be used (in conversation, and also in the media (who are also often accused of liberal bias)) to suggest left-wing (or socialist) tendencies in someone or something, even if left-wing (socialism) as we would know it in England (or especially in Denmark) is something totally different. Perhaps regulation of business is more easily confused with communism over here. Let us turn it over to that great repository of modern learning and scourge of school teachers everywhere – Wikipedia:

"One of the greatest contrasts is between the usage [of the word liberal] in the United States and usage in Continental Europe. In the US, liberalism is usually understood to refer to modern liberalism, as contrasted with conservatism. American liberals endorse heavy regulation for business, a social welfare state, and support broad racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance, and thus more readily embrace multiculturalism, and affirmative action. In Europe, on the other hand, liberalism is not only contrasted with conservatism and Christian Democracy, but also with socialism and social democracy."

On this I shall investigate more, and come up with something more succinct. And with fewer brackets.

On Religion
 
Well, first things first – churches have been present in abundance everywhere we have walked. All sorts of churches – Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Methodist etc. This is pretty much as I expected it. At none of the churches have we encountered rabid fundamentalist Christians – in fact at no point has any religion been pushed in our faces at all. We have stayed at the hospitality of the owners of a Christian campsite in Denton and they were fantastic. I also personally experienced the hospitality of the brothers at Saint Anselm's Abbey in Washington. What am I trying to say then…I don't know yet. To an Englishman who is a lapsed Catholic, who was brought up in a country where religious observance is on the wane and who has spent four and a half years in Denmark, a country where if anything the Christian religion is even less observed, I entered America expecting to be in contact with more religion and more religious people. Having a deep suspicion of organised religion of any kind (there, I've nailed my colours to the mast) I'm still intrigued to see all this…religion everywhere. In my mind I cannot escape the connection between Christian fundamentalism and the administration in the White House (to me just another example of the religion-power axis I find distasteful. Not a surprise) and I know I am viewing things in this country in a specific way as a result of this. Whatever I think now there is obviously a long way for us to go in our trip across the country and I suspect I'll be coming into more and more contact with religious feelings that are nothing like those in England or Denmark. It's intriguing, that's all I can say at the moment.

No mosques yet though, and no sign that America is anything other than a Christian country.

On War

A major subject obviously. According to a poll Dave saw on TV (I think it was NBC) 86% of Americans believe that the US went into Iraq in retaliation for Saddam Hussein's role in the 9/11 attacks (nb. I cannot yet source this poll). Our host at the time believed this number to be totally fabricated (i.e. nowhere near as many people think this way) and that most people believe that the US went into Iraq because a show of strength was needed following the World Trade Center attacks) which raises some interesting questions. If it is not true, what is with the people orchestrating the poll, who are they asking and what is their point? But if the poll is true, what does this mean? The 9/11 Commission Report made it clear that Al-Qaeda had no operational relationship with Iraq and that Saddam Hussein was not behind the attacks (OK, I know some of the conspiracy theories in this area before anyone asks, and I have also read about the new 'evidence' linking Saddam to Al-Qaeda. I just like to think it belongs in the same box as the 'evidence' of weapons of mass destruction). The Bush Administration has quite happily let the theory that Saddam was involved in the attacks fester and spread (with the Vice-President most culpable in this aspect) so perhaps it is unsurprising that most Americans (ok, most of those polled) believe that Iraq had a major hand in 9/11. I am very interested in how Americans view the Iraq war-9/11 relationship and hope to find out more as we walk.

Anyway, on evidence of first conversations most people we have spoken to are sceptical of the war.

On Patriotism

The flag. It's everywhere. On flagpoles, on front doors, in flowerbeds, on bumper stickers – everywhere. In England, the flag is hardly anywhere. In Denmark, however, they love their flag and no summerhouse seems complete without a flagpole for the residents to run their mystical flag up. So the Americans are going an upfront route along with the Danes, leaving us Brits to drag out the St George's Cross every few years at major sporting events. The Americans are up for America, period. Whether or not patriotism extends to criticism of the current administration I am as yet unsure, but on first glances, the people of the country are well behind themselves. We've seen a lot of banners asking for people to support the troops, and I can't yet remember any saying bring the troops home. One of our hosts reported that an anti-war sign he put up in garden was missing the morning after he put it up.

On Cars/SUVs

Cars here are big. Very big. Just as I imagined. Why do Americans need such big cars? As one person we met put it – they need them to come out on top in an accident. I would estimate, based on conversations with people, that less than 10% of Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) use them for off-road activities. The roads are simply full of people driving cars which are far too big, energy inefficient and, as far as I can see, downright dangerous to other drivers – you cannot see over these things, you cannot see round them, it's a nightmare. Some of them are so big they are literally centimetres from the ceilings of underground car parks. I find myself willing the ceiling to lower itself so that the paintjobs get screwed up. Petrol is also considered to be expensive over here at the moment, a view which I guess is laughable to European drivers. A couple of times I have been told by supermarket cashiers to count all my cents change because I'll 'need it for gas soon' (both times I have responded that I walk everywhere, and have been rewarded with fantastic looks of shock and awe). Driving is a national pastime in a way we simply cannot imagine in Europe, even though I am know I am not exactly writing anything new here. The long distances between things requires an addiction to driving, an addiction people seem only too happy to keep going. I should also mention the short distances people also seem prepared to drive – as evidenced by many conversations we have had on the road and also by the woman who got in her car to drive down to her mailbox at the end of her drive (she saw me walking past and thought I had put something in the box). Perhaps the best exchange we have had to illustrate the importance of the car to the American psyche came from the mouth of a child in Bridgeville, Delaware:

Scene: Two hikers finish repairing feet by the side of the road in a small town. Two girls (approximately 11-13) see them putting their packs and hats on:

Girl 1: What are you?!!
Stu: Stupid
Dave: We're walkers
Girl 2: Where are you going?!
Dave: To Washington. And then to California
Girl 1 (puzzled, to Girl 2): What are they doing?!
Girl 2: They're walking to California
Girl 1: But where are you going?!!
Dave and Stu (shouting, for benefit of amused motorist who is waiting in traffic behind the girls and can overhear everything): We're going to California!
Girl 1: But where's your car?!!!!

On Language

Now here's an interesting one, and one that no doubt connects very closely with that subject with which American society is intensely concerned – race. I knew this would be interesting from the moment I arrived at Washington Dulles airport baggage reclaim. There, Dave and I stood waiting for our backpacks as the tannoy rang out apologies for delays. Following the message in English was one in Spanish. A tall white American gentleman next to me spat out " Speak in English motherfucker!"

I thought this was aggressive at the time but obviously chose not to engage said gentleman in a discussion of airport announcement format there and then. As my time in the US has gone on though, I can see that the English-Spanish bilingualism issue, and indeed the immigration of Spanish-speaking peoples to the US is a bigger issue than perhaps we in Europe have realised. My perceptions of the 'problem' crystallised once I reached Washington, although all along the route it was possible to see why the English-Spanish language confrontation is looming.

To give one example. This part of the country is experiencing a home building boom – houses are going up, everywhere. OK, a lot of them look like they've been built from the same template and a lot of them can comfortably be labelled McMansions but whatever, this is boomtime for the construction industry. Wherever I've walked past these building sites the majority of construction workers I've seen are Latino. People we've run into on the route (some in the building trade) have spoken of the ability of immigrant labourers to undercut existing local labour sources. In such cases there will be a bilingual foreman between English-speaking employers and Spanish-speaking labourers. Cheap skilled (or semi-skilled) labour appears to be pouring into the Delaware and Maryland areas due to the demand for swiftly built housing at affordable prices (ah, gotta love the market).

And with these new workers comes a demand for Spanish speaking services, whether it's newspapers, familiar people at the corner store, television channels – or even tannoy announcements in airports. Dave and I have been watching the World Cup at a friend's place exclusively on Spanish TV – featuring locally targeted ads in Spanish, for local Spanish-speaking businesses. To me as a kinda of immigrant this struck me as odd – especially as I've recently come from Denmark where the integration of foreigners has been such a huge issue. Frankly, the idea of a separate language television channel in Denmark would be anathema to many Danish politicians and voters – a simply terrifying example that the country was being overrun by immigrants (nb, to Danish friends and colleagues – did I miss something in Copenhagen and am I right I thinking that a separate language TV station didn't exist, especially one with the relative financial clout to screen all world cup games?).

So what am I trying to say? I don't know yet. All I know is that it would appear, especially after spending time in DC and, I don't know, playing soccer in the park with exclusively immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries or walking through areas where all speech overheard was Spanish, it would appear that the possibility of two societies growing up exclusively side by side exists. Maybe this will be more of a phenomenon in urban areas, or perhaps it might not because of the melting pot effect that America is so famous for. All I know is, as an Englishman who, to my shame, spent four years of my life in Denmark and learned only enough Danish to get by in restaurants and bars, all I know is that in my experience natural English speakers are generally extremely reluctant to learn other languages, instead relying on the tried and tested technique of speaking louder and slower – that's bound to work and if the natives can't understand then sod 'em. I will propose that such a scenario here in the US would be disastrous, especially in light of demographic factors and the need for communities to communicate. Communities – Communicate. Duh.

But what do I know? I've only just arrived. I can't wait to find more about this subject, and of course I've only just scratched the surface of race and language in the US. More soon come.

On Alcohol

Yes, it is flattering that I am thought to be under 21. No, it is totally annoying that I, a 31 year old man must take my ID with me everywhere to buy booze.

This sounds very European doesn't it? Don't mean it's not a genuine gripe. And on top of that, some states here can sell booze in supermarkets and others can't. In some places I am informed that you don't even have be over 21 to drink, 18 will do (it's all in the purchasing apparently). Now I come from binge-drinking central, the United Kingdom, where we fall over in the streets from 6pm on a Tuesday night, our men are Neanderthal and our women feisty, to put it mildly (but we have some great offers on booze). We're still Hogarthian, even today. All of these restrictions on booze seem a bit Puritan to me…which I guess figures. OK, it's all I expected and more.

What's most annoying is that on a night out in Washington Dave and I couldn't get into bars because we didn't have ID saying we were over 21, even though we had been on the road for the previous 10 days and we looked like Jeffrey Bernard after a bad night. How is it that barmen, doorstaff and managers are so removed of their human ability to spot a 31 year old? In some places (ok, I saw an episode of My Name is Earl) they ID everyone under 35. What is this, some terrifying fear of litigation? Or fear of the booze itself? If a country is to be Puritan, get it over with and only let people who already have kids drink (to be safe, ID should be asked for everyone under 45). If you're going to do something, do it properly, for goodness' sake.

Oh, one other thing. Dave and I have been informed that there are even 'dry' states. The horror, the horror…

On Food

Well, we're eating a lot of fast food. As far as I can tell, this makes us like most Americans. I think it's weird that during these days in DC I have actually been missing packet pasta cooked on the camp stove, augmented by fresh vegetables and whatever else we could find. Yes, I know that packet pasta is fast food, and yes, I know that it's as relatively unhealthy as anything else but for me, as someone who loves to cook, it's a bit weird to be permanently thinking in terms of what I can buy in a fast food restaurant, or a 'proper' restaurant, or what I can order in.

I guess it might be worth saying that people tell me city life is much faster here, and food, pound for pound, is certainly much cheaper. It seems to make no difference to us to stop off for that Sub (ok, I know this is admission of ignorance but for anyone that ever followed my uselessness in interpreting hip-hop crews like K9 Posse it will probably come as no surprise that I failed to know that submarine-shaped sandwiches are commonly called 'Subs') because we get a whole lot of crap for not a lot of dollar. I figure this makes us as much a part of the regular population as anyone else – and also encourages a non-cooking instinct, I don't doubt. Trouble is, of course, it just ain't that healthy, no matter how many Tasty Asian Salad adverts McDonalds takes out around the city. Because of the favour fast food enjoys here I am already forgetting what I used to cook in Denmark and England, and every cooking opportunity is greeted with glee (until I realise that I am not using my own herb and spice collection and I don't know where anything is – how ungrateful is that?).

Regarding the stereotype we have in Europe of the fat American, I can confidently say that so far I have seen no one bigger than people I have already encountered in Europe. Well, alright, maybe one or two. For me, the fast food joint that broke the fattened camel's back was Jerry's, a place on the 450 on the way into Washington. Here I was greeted by massive signage advertising 'The Beast' and believe me, 95% of people in the UK that I know would have been cowering the face of this fella. Giant, I tell you. The sandwich, for it was that, was about a foot high as far as I could make out, and you'd need some sort of advanced evolutionary jaw to even contemplate trying to take a bite of it straight on. Who eats these things?! I kinda stared at it in wonder until I saw the big American I alluded to earlier walk past – the extra large drink he was holding was lost in the folds of his hand. He was drinking it like a large bear would lick an ice cube.

I'm not purposefully being rude here. I know that all of us in Europe are getting fatter, and that obesity is not (it's not!) a laughing matter. It's just that large Americans are something the media in England like to push us and we lap it up like, well, like big people thirsty for soft drinks. How is all this happening when it's so obviously ridiculously unhealthy? Bizarre. All I know is that the background music in Jerry's was so hip that I kinda ignored the fact that my sandwich could feed three.

On Isolation

I have a feeling this is a subject I am going to return to again and again, especially in places in the Midwest. What I am getting at with the term 'isolation' is the sense of size that it is easy to experience in the US, a feeling that I certainly felt even during the first period of our walk from the east coast to Washington.

The thing is that the skies are big here. A difficult thing for me to fully explain in text, but one I have felt before in France – and that's so near England that perhaps it's even more difficult to explain. What I am trying to match up is the geographical layout of the areas we are walking through with the politics of the country, in particular the ability/willingness of people who live in 'isolation' to engage with the wider world and understand that the actions of the government they vote for affects people in other countries every day.

If that is a heavy-handed way to put it then I hope I can refine what I looking for in this area of contemplation. Let me try to put it simply: when I was walking through certain areas in Delaware and Maryland I started getting the feeling that there was no reason (on the surface anyway) for anyone living on our route to be interested in any way at all about politics outside of the local area. Now I'm not stupid enough to believe that simply living in the middle of nowhere definitely makes one less interested in politics, but I have to confess to feeling that the neatly manicured lawns and immaculate surroundings of many of the communities we came across masked a concern primarily with the local. This feeling was backed up with a few conversations with locals who were lovely people but frankly had little idea where many things in the world were or even if the people in England were living in a free country. Now I am going to be defensive here and say that such a statement should not be taken too critically of the Americans we have met. I say this because people have expressed a genuine and touching curiosity to quiz us on the whys and wherefores of Europe and have been more than willing to listen to our interpretations of events. What to call this gap between us 'interested' Europeans and the 'local' Americans and why does this gap exist? I'm no doubt exaggerating it as an outsider but I nevertheless feel that the size of this country (and remember that at this point I have travelled 2% of our 5000 mile route) is something that we simply have no idea of on the other side of the pond. Such a size would no doubt skew important events in our lives in a totally different way.

On Wheeled Public Transport

Wheeled public transport does exist (I'm not for discussing city metro systems yet). You have to investigate it, but it's there. One bus an hour on the Washington DC routes that we're using but a bus nevertheless. Cars are so much the preferred mode of transport here that it seems like buses have to do their work very much in the background. What I like about the DC bus system (at this point I haven't used anything in another place) is that it's the same as anywhere else I've been in Europe, the same conventions, the same seating arrangements. It's familiar to me, if slightly underused compared to Europe, When the car is king everyone wants a car I guess, and I am very much reminded of that tremendous disaster of a human being, Margaret Thatcher, with her self-satisfied belief that "A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure." Man, I have failed so many times in pursuit of private petrol-propelled motion. What say she to a walker?

(OK, I realise I haven't really addressed public transport properly at this point (the clock on the wall says a quarter past midnight) but I'll come back to it. It just doesn't seem, at first glance, to be as much as part of America as it is, say, part of Denmark)

On Football (and the attitude to the professional foul)

I cannot lie. The attitude towards football (soccer) has not been anything like we Europeans expected. People know about the game, they know that playing with the hands is frowned upon, nay not allowed, and they're getting more into it all the time. When we started on the east coast we didn't really have many people to talk to about it, but as we've come further west and the World Cup has actually started we've been able to get into more and more conversations about the relative merits of Fernando Torres' haircut versus Lionel Messi's.

Europeans, don't be fooled. I'm not suggesting that every American is into soccer, but I am pretty sure that most of the male population (with a significant proportion of the female population not far behind) is sports mad. Sports mad, as every European knows, means that people (blokes mostly, but women's football is way more advanced over here than it is in Europe, as far as I can tell) will always find room to comment on the relative merits of loads of sporting endeavours they know nothing about, from Kabadi to the Tour de France. Consequently, the love of football is going to grow over here (thanks to tournaments like this World Cup, and the ever-increasing number of kids that play the game at school) from the preserve of the sports mad to the property of the mainstream, and if you add in the effect from the influx of Hispanics I've mentioned above then you should get an idea that this thing is not going to go away. Whether or not the commercial stranglehold that certain businesses have over the established US sports will let soccer have its day is more uncertain however, and after the World Cup I'd expect the game to retreat into its shell a little (but hey, DC fans have Freddy Adu, and even the English have heard of him).

American sports are something I'm going to have to comment on further in future. In the meantime I'd just like to finish by pointing out that American commentators (and yes, that's you Alexi Lalas – just because you've shaved off your stupid beard doesn't mean you're not stupid) need to stop talking about fouls like they are something that needs to be done. Pointing out that 'that was a good foul there, it needed to happen, he's taken that yellow like a man' doesn't do anything for anyone. The game is not basketball, for God's sake. We all know professional fouls take place, let's not celebrate them in such an obvious way. In conclusion, I refer all future US commentators to the great Franco Baresi. Never did he really look like he was committing professional fouls, yet all the time people never went past him. Marvellous.


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