USA reflections

I promised some more reflections on my American holiday, and I need to clear them out of my head before I can get on with curing the economy and being the last blogger in the west to give my views about Margaret Thatcher.  It was a terrific holiday – five days in Chicago, the overnight City of New Orleans train to New Orleans, five days there with friends drinking cocktails and cheering Easter parades, then a few days in French Louisiana talking, eating and visiting Cajun.  The Americans we met were, without exception, charming and positive, even the beggars and car-hire clerks.  They were also (might be the folk we met) more socially progressive than Fox News might suggest.  So I wouldn’t like the comments below to be thought of as hostile, but I hope American friends will feel that critical is OK.  The remarks that follows are pretty disconnected, but here goes:

  • I reckon there are about five days of tourist interest in any major city, and after that you feel that you’ve got the idea. Major art galleries, superb buildings, restaurants, bars and cafes, scenic walks and parks, a museum or two, they’re all great but then you’ve got to a point where you need contacts and networks to go to the next stage.  That’s why it is so wonderful to be shown around by locals, where you can get into the districts and activities that make a place magical.  I’ve had that in Jerusalem, Paris and Vienna, and a friend with exceptional local knowledge in Lisbon.  The difference is marked.  In the absence of native friends, I have rarely felt that I needed to stay another few days in any great city, and there are only a few – Budapest, Florence, New Orleans, Lisbon – where I’ve wanted to go back.  A couple – Rome, Prague – I’ve actually felt at a bit of a loose end on the final day: what a Philistine !
  • Why do airlines say “We hope you’ve enjoyed flying with us’ ? Enjoy ?  En-bloody-joy ?  Any long haul air trip is at best a minor ordeal, with crying babies, barely edible food, arthritic knees and the guy in front reclining his chair for eight continuous hours.  There have been times when I have had really good service – Emirates Airbus 380 to India was very well done – and my wife has the charm to get the odd upgrade that allows sleep and glassware and metal cutlery.  But basically, air travel is a necessary evil, and after the first couple of trips, it is not something to justify the word ‘enjoy’ in the way that a meal, or a concert or a warm day by the sea do. And remember the hassle of baggage weight, of security, finding the terminal, returning your hire car miles away, or turning up two hours before the flight and all the attendant crap.  For neither of our transatlantic flights were we able to sit in the seats we thought we had booked before Christmas.   Sometimes, the term ‘cattle class’ is flattering; I await the first mutiny of passengers.
  • Driving around Louisiana we were struck by the vast number of churches, an endless supply of religiosity, often supported by posters and neon signs. Every small settlement would have two, or three, or four churches, often the best building in town and sometimes the worst.  I recognise the atypical strength of faith in the USA compared with other advanced countries, but perhaps being a neighbourhood religious leader is a way of making a good living, particularly in a society where tithing is not uncommon.
  • The American habit of tipping – where 15% is considered the basic and more is expected for good service – is unique in my experience. In the UK we think that 10% has to be earned, and that is high compared to, say, France, where loose change is the norm: yet there are tales of American waiters chasing guests down the road to insist on a bigger tip.  Parties of six or more routinely get 18% added to the bill, often on top of an unstated local sales tax that makes the meal 30% more costly than anticipated.  Where did the tip culture come from in the USA ?  I guess it is the way that waiters and bar staff get a livable wage – which makes you wonder why their employers don’t pay them enough out of the company proceeds.  After all, the USA is no longer a cheap place to dine or (try the wine, for heaven’s sake) drink.  Am I being a cynic in seeing this as a way of transferring a business expense – adequate wages – from the owner to the customer ?
  • We enjoyed visiting southern plantations indeed, that was one reason we went back to New Orleans.  The history is fascinating, the buildings elegant, and many of the plantations know the background of the owners and their families for two hundred years or more.  The plantations we went to – in the lower Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – were devoted to sugar rather than cotton, but that crop created great wealth for the owners. It seemed to us, however, that slavery formed a very minor part of the narrative.  Individual stories of the owners were told, but none of the slaves apart from lists that showed their sex, age and skills.  The only anecdote about splitting slave families was told to show how the owner’s wife had stepped in to prevent it.  Most of the slave huts had been demolished, with a few kept to show visitors after they had been to the big house.  No-one wants any nation to live in an endless froth of guilt – least of all the British, as we shall see in a moment – but much more could have been made of the origins, trade and lives of the slaves.  The fact that one middle-aged American lady asked the tour guide “And did the slaves dine with the family in the evening ?” indicates that there is something of an educational task there.
  • For example: we visited Natchez, a town founded on the steamboat traffic that docked under a protecting Mississippi bluff, and the neat streets and historic houses were interesting enough. The visitor centre was well laid out but seemed to present the Civil War as a tragic intervention into a colourful and romantic local way of life, rather than a bloody struggle for justice.  This was reflected in the way that the civil rights struggle of the 1960s was totally absent.  Have a look at the Wikipedia entry, which speaks of all-white juries acquitting plainly guilty murderers, of the first promoted black worker being killed by a car bomb, of Natchez as the centre of the KKK, of a progressive local lawyer being all but ruined when he stood up for local black residents, all in living memory.  Where does the myopia come from ?  Is it because the municipality feels that visitors will be kept away by an acknowledgement of the brutal past ?  If so, they are wrong: tourists would be attracted by an approach which celebrated the courage and achievements of the local people who fought for the right.
  • Interesting fact. Those who owned more than 25 slaves were excused from military service in the American Civil War, because they had an important task at home.  Like the Orthodox Jews in Israel, like the rich in Vietnam, when it comes to dying for the cause, we are not ‘all in it together’.
  • The British shame I hinted at above was our role in expelling the French Canadians from Nova Scotia in 1755, driving them from land that was peacefully and well farmed. The Acadians became the Cajuns, and they celebrate a wonderful local culture, rich in music, craft skills, food, language: but about a third of them are estimated to have died in the forced expulsion, which was justified by little more than a suspicion that they would not be totally loyal to the British crown in the French Wars of the period.  This episode is unlikely to appear as one of our imperial glories in Michael Gove’s new history curriculum. Longfellow wrote an epic poem around Evangeline, an Acadian young woman separated from her love by the expulsion: we saw the oak in Martinville where she finally found her man again.  We visited a lovely reconstruction of an Acadian village, complete with smithy, church (RC of course) and school house.  One memorial has a wall giving the names of those who survived the journey and came to Louisiana – and the host of our B&B was a descendant of one such.
  • American localities seem to regard signage as an option. It took us 30 minutes to find the train from Chicago O’Hare Airport to the city.  Traffic signage involves simply the number of the road – very rarely showing the name of the next significant settlement.  Luckily our hire car (yes, we did drive a Chevy to the levee) had a compass reading on the rear view mirror, so we could have some idea we were following Highway 61 north and not south.  Road surfaces were awful – the car hire folk from Enterprise (who were great) attributed this to being a poor state but when petrol is sold at a third of European prices, surely a few cents of fuel tax would provide the resources for the road system a modern country should expect.
  • Town centres generally seem pretty down on their luck. Outside of the main cities, we saw plenty of empty shops and closing businesses, even in pretty and distinctive towns like St. Martinville.  Don’t know whether this is due to the recession, like the Chicago beggars mentioned in an earlier post, or (more likely) due to the omnipresent strip malls that follow the arterial routes out of town.
  • American beer is improving greatly. I remember as a student being offered the omnipresent light lager – Budweiser, Coors and so forth.  Now local microbreweries across the States offer drinkable, tasty beers: ‘amber ales’ are on offer – similar to British bitter or light ales, and drinkable with meals as well as over the bar.  Goose Island in Chicago was very drinkable indeed, as was Abita Amber in New Orleans.  It’s a trend recently noticed by the BBC, and one that might offer the advantage of reducing the massive US production of ice cubes.  Has anyone calculated the energy that goes into filing every available glass with ice ?

Just to repeat – overall a fascinating and friendly experience, and we’ll certainly be back.  You just have to remember you’re in a foreign country !

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