Monday, 13 October 2008

The trip so far: USA

My long-imagined trip through the Americas began with a flight to New York City on September 12. Looking at it now, my trip through the USA was the perfect expression of the travel-philosophy I developed a few years ago: that is “people not places”. I find that my memories of places I visit, sights I see, fade in time, leaving memories of the people I meet. Whether I enjoy a place or not depends almost entirely on the people I meet and the interactions I have with them. This is an idea, a theme, that I expect I might examine in more detail in this blog, but for now I ought to return to the start of my narrative, making the point that I planned my trip through the USA without an atlas but with a hitlist of friends. Nira was no longer in Boston, but Lisa was in NYC, Rachael would be in Seattle, Perrine in SF, Brandon in Chico (wherever that was in California), Sarah and Rafe in LA.

So I set off to NYC in anticipation of seeing Lisa, and of possibly a very long time away from London, family, friends and Elena. What had barely crossed my mind was the fact I was arriving in one of – if not the – world’s great city(ies), a place I had hoped to visit for at least the last ten years.

The instant I stepped out of Penn Station into the buzz of midtown I was struck by the excitement of being in NYC and – literally in that instant – remembered how I had longed to visit Manhattan. An instant later I met L, and within five minutes we were in a Starbucks, catching up.

The truth is, L and I didn’t get on as well as I might have hoped. In the past weeks I’ve wondered about the reasons for this. For one, I’d say we were, to use a cliché that is as irritating but as useful as all clichés, “in very different places”. L was going into the last week of her PR job, in which she had been a great success and which she enjoyed. I, having finished my job a month before, was in the slightly morose, jet-lagged and homesick mood that I have always found myself in at the start of a long trip away from the UK. Secondly, I had known Lisa in the neutral territory of Guadalajara, and now I was meeting her on her home territory: the city and the flat that she had lived in for a year, and with the friends she had made. This all meant that the goalposts of our friendships had changed, from equals in a foreign country to me being the foreigner bumming on her couch, and her the leader and local. Plus, I was in a stage of culture shock that made me go into my shell tremendously. (The USA really terrifies me in some ways that I may attempt to describe another time.) Thirdly, I was pretty wasted on my first night of travels and acted kind of ridiculously, but that would have to be the lesser of the factors.

In any case, it was not exclusively awkward between L and me. I was extremely grateful to her for showing me around the weekend I was there and to her and her flatmate Kelly for giving me a place to crash (sleeping till 9.30-10 every day after they had gone to work hours earlier.) But I ended up loving NYC the place more than the people (although again I add the caveat that karaoke night with Lisa, Kelly, Brian and their metropolitan friends was great fun on my first night – if only the jet-lag, lack of sleep and extensive choice of beers hadn’t taken their toll.)

NYC is a city that will live long in my mind for its vibrancy and scale. No other city looks the same, to my mind. I was pleased to “tick off the list” the Statue of Liberty, Ground Zero, the UN, and visiting the Ellis Island museum (for a good 3 hours) fulfilled an ambition which began with watching the Godfather part 2 almost ten years ago.

In the middle of the week in NYC I went to Washington DC. This was partly to tick off the list the White House, the Capitol, Lincoln et al and to visit the Holocaust Museum, but mainly to avoid overstaying my welcome at L & K’s flat in Queens.

I went by Megabus (22 POUND return) and on the first night immediately met Nick from Ipswich, a few more English blokes and Ivi, a very nice political scientist from Hamburg. We went out drinking together and I couldn’t have asked for a better night. For a homesick, culture-shocked, sport and politics-loving Londoner who once lived in Hamburg, there couldn’t have been a better bunch to go out with that night. We sat in an Irish pub talking cricket, Newcastle United and American culture and girls. To paraphrase Tolstoy - in possibly the most inappropriate situation ever - this chat was “balm to my soul”.

My next day in DC was also successful as I ticked all the monuments off my list and spent a good few hours in the Holocaust Museum (excellent but Berlin’s Judisches Museum still beats it for me.)


Two days later I was on a flight to Seattle. In keeping with my “people not places” Reisephilosoph* I was heading there purely because it was a convenient place to meet Rachael, an old friend-girlfriend from Gdl, who I had not had much communication with in the previous three years, but a person who remained vivid in my thoughts over much of that time. In short, Rachael was a person I could not have bared to not see again and now, even if our paths were never to cross again, I would feel glad to have spent a weekend with her in Seattle. Seattle it was, but in my mind it might just as well have been Tokyo, Addis Ababa or Aylesbury. There was (almost) nothing at all I wanted to see in Seattle but Rachael, and for her sake I got on the 7-hour flight and one-hour bus into town.

* "travel-philosophy” feels far too pretentious for me to write it a second time, so I am inventing a more manageable German word, which will – ironically – seem three times as pretentious to anyone interested – or bored – enough to be reading this blog.

(I should also mention – and give thanks to Facebook - for the circuitous route by which I got back in touch with R, which involved her unusual surname and lookalike – but apparently very different – sister. But I’ll save that for another post on the wonders of F’Book.)

Strangely, as I walked the last couple of blocks to meet R at the Green Tortoise Hostel in Seattle, I began to feel very anxious. What if we didn’t get on after three years? And what was I really expecting from seeing her again anyway?

I needn’t have worried. Partly because we got on so well, as 3 years’ gap melted to what felt like 3 days’, and partly because R’s natural sketchiness of habits meant she arrived at the hostel an hour after me in any case.

We went to a bar on that Friday night and had one of those conversations you have with someone you haven’t seen in too long, where you are left with points you can’t make, avenues of conversation you can’t explore, simply because time is precious and you have so much to hear and say.

The Saturday was a lovely day. (I’m not talking about the weather. It drizzled most of the day and I didn’t see the sun once. Seattle lived up to its reputation.) It was a lovely day as R played a sort of tourguide in this city she had never before set foot in. But we were in her country, after we had known each other on neutral, Mexican ground. We went to the original Starbucks (worth waiting 40 minutes for a latte in my book) and saw the Space Needle (not worth paying $15 to go up, we thought, so we didn’t) and took a ferry to sleepy, picturesque Bainbridge Island, where we shared a glass of port and wandered round the little harbour. On the ferry back, dancing salsa to no music in the mist and the freezing cold of the upper deck, with the skyline of Seattle in the background (like a parody of a romantic, filmic setting) I thought how wonderful it was to learn again what I loved about R, and how I enjoyed time with her. Over the previous three years I had remembered the outline of why I liked her, but to see the detail filled in again and to feel as if three days had passed, where three years had gone by, was a real joy. Even if I now longer felt romantically-physically for R, as I had done back in Gdl, I was still excited and delighted to be in her presence.

We had an eye-opening conversation about all things American later that evening, which exposed at least one major point of disagreement – on the idea of health insurance and the role of government. And the next morning we parted, agreeing to meet somewhere in Europe in two years’ time.

Lying half-awake that Sunday morning in Seattle, I decided to head to Sacramento later that day. The reasons for this were: with R going north I lost my reason for being in Seattle (“people not places”); Sac is close to Chico, where I was planning to meet Brandon; and I had chanced to pick up a flyer for a cosy-looking hostel there, where I expected I could spend a quiet day doing some laundry before heading to Chico.

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