For the first time in three years I have been on holiday; a good one. Together with my wife and two teenage sons we visited my half-brother's family in Connecticut, toured Boston, went camping (briefly and abortively) on the Massachusetts coast, stayed with friends in affluent Morristown thirty miles west of New York, whizzed round Manhattan, then rounded the whole thing off with a week on the lower Jersey shore in a big family get-together at Surf City, Long Beach Island.
Seeing so much of the north east USA in a little over two weeks left me with a gutful of tastes and impressions of a country that is always surprising. It is partly the place of massive cars, faux architecture and epic, trashy shopping malls that Bill Bryson mocks so relentlessly, but it's a young country raised from the dirt in two frenetic centuries, and frankly, the UK and Europe have more than outdone America in tastelessness, desecration and live-for-today consumption in the last couple of decades.
So in the interests of honesty and little myth busting, ten observations on my American experience of the last fortnight:
1. You can eat very healthily just about anywhere, including service stations. What's more, in New York and Massachusetts all restaurants and fast-food outlets are made to display the calories in their meals. It's a revelation. (Did you know that the average coffee shop muffin is about 500 calories? Or that a fruit smoothie with yoghurt is over 400, and with protein powder 550?) At the Massachusetts equivalent of Reading Services - a place heaving with travellers no fatter, far less pale and certainly more polite than their British counterparts - we got roasted veggie burritos at 400 calories. There was pizza and Dunkin'Donuts on offer of course, but they had to publish their calories, too, and consequently people were making an informed choice. This has to be the way forward for fat Britain.
2. Free speech is alive and well, and to an outsider it felt like hugely refreshing. Sure, Rush Limbaugh is an oaf and his views stink, and certainly the right has the pithiest bumper stickers - 'Somewhere in Kenya a village is missing its idiot' - but only the nuts take any notice. And that's the point: when extreme voices can be freely heard, most people just shrug their shoulders and turn away. The atmosphere of openness lends itself to far freer public expression than we're used to in the UK. A church in the main square of Morristown (think Guildford) lists all the categories of people it welcomes on a board outside: straight, gay, transgender, confused, agnostic, seeking, black, white etc You know it's a liberal church because it's not afraid to proclaim it. This is possibly the single thing I admire most about America: it's like a noisy room in which everyone is shouting at each other. How much better than a room in which everyone is afraid to speak.
3. Taxes are not low in the USA, especially local taxes. Our commuter belt friends, retired and living comfortably in a house that would certainly be top-band for council tax in the UK (£3 - £4k), pay over $22,000 p/a to the local government. By far the biggest slice of this goes to maintain the local schools, which do not receive central government funding. It means, we were told, that parents whose kids are receiving publicly-funded education get very involved with their schools. The swingeing local taxes have a depressing effect on the price of property, which, I concluded was probably a good thing. There's nothing more pointless than everybody's wealth being tied up in properties that do nothing except sit there.
4. After three plus points, a minus: Americans are stunningly, woefully, utterly and unforgivably ignorant of geography. It shouldn't have come as a surprise, but when a college educated person asks how you get from England to Wales or Scotland - 'is there water in between?' - your jaw still drops. A young woman serving us in a restaurant in leafy West Hartford, Connecticut said, 'Wow, Great Britain, that's like a 22 hour flight, right?'. When I told her that in fact London was as close to where we standing as Los Angeles, it was her jaw that dropped and a glazed, uncomprehending expression descended. How could anywhere abroad be further than anywhere in America? she was clearly asking herself. I felt like asking her if she was aware that Queen Elizabeth was in fact head of state in a country no more than six hours drive from her front door, but thought it might be a little cruel. Some of those local taxes should be spent on a globe to be placed in every American class room. Please!
5. A quickie: American customer service really is the best in the world. It's not just plastic 'have a nice day' politeness, it's real politeness borne out of a genuine culture of please and thank you that vaporised in the UK along with heavy industry and pop music with a tune to it. A shout-out here for the young man at the checkout in Manahawkin Shop-Rite who insisted three times that we claim our $5 shrimp voucher and be sure to use it. It was always, 'Sir' and 'Ma'am', and this pleasant formality dignified him as well as us. Another honourable mention for the Shop-Rite outdoor staff: I loved their lime-green T-shirts that proclaimed them 'The best cart guys in the business'. They were.
6. American cars are not vulgar. They are brilliant. I hired a Jeep Liberty (I love Jeeps), and it was smooth and beautiful to drive, made my family comfortable, made me feel manly, and didn't beep persistently at me for not buckling my seatbelt like the nannying bloody Prius I drive at home. When we were camping and got caught in a violent thunder storm that threatened to sweep away our tent, the Jeep slept four of us and possibly saved us from a fatal lighting strike. American cars certainly guzzle fuel, but as the price goes up, engine efficiency increases. Brand new SUVs are now being advertised as achieving almost 25 miles to the gallon!
7. Surf City New Jersey has the cleanest, most pristine beaches I have seen anywhere in the world. The rules are strict and there are beach cops patrolling - no beverages or food (enforced), no ball games (enforced occasionally), no disrobing (strictly enforced) - but the results are laudable. Not a single cigarette butt or ring-pull even when digging deep into the sand. And on two out of the six days we were there, pods of dolphins swam along the shore. Compared with the Med, where every beautiful spot is blighted by litter, Surf City was beach holiday paradise.
8. American cities feel safer than British ones. We spent time in Boston and New York and rode the subways in both. The trains were clean and efficient, the passengers benign and lacking the edge of 'don't you dare look at me' hostility that comes off London commuters in waves. All four of us were able to travel effortlessly and cheaply using a single swipe card purchased without fuss that made London's 'Oyster' seem impossibly bureaucratic and convoluted. There was a sense of order without oppression in both Boston and New York, and they were clean and jolly. We felt safe wandering around, and the greatest danger we faced were the bed bugs in the Cambridge Gateway Inn, a motel we were told was conveniently positioned for visiting Harvard university. If you're a drug dealer or prostitute looking to visit Harvard, preferably with a view to studying entomology, this is definitely the inn for you! Check out its glowing references on Trip Advisor - I wish we had.
9. Americans do history really quite well. Once more, I take issue with Bill Bryson's derision of the National Parks' Service attractions - we visited some great ones. At Jockey Hollow, near Morristown, we saw the farm and farmhouse, still standing exactly as it was in 1789, at which Washington's patriot army spent a brutal winter during the war of independence. A woman dressed in period costume spoke at length and with great insight about all that happened in the area during the revolution - she had recently returned from an historical conference at Christchurch College, Oxford and couldn't have been more impressive. Just along the road we visited the 'Ford House' in Morristown, which Washington and his commanders took as their winter quarters. Similarly preserved in aspic, it was a real piece of history, and our guide, Eric Olsen, was a loveable, irreverent comedian as well as an historian. Wearing a plastic rain protector over his Yogi Bear park ranger's hat, Eric listed a least a dozen late 18th century terms for the outhouse - 'The House of Commons' was a favourite - and exploded the myth that Washington had wooden false teeth. In fact, he had many sets of false teeth, some spring-loaded to keep them pressed to his upper gums, made from both human and cows' teeth. The one surviving portrait shows (on one interpretation) a man with swollen cheeks who was a lifelong martyr to tooth decay caused by sugar from the Indies. Fighting the British for eight years was evidently painless in comparison.
10. Ordinary Americans don't like paying university fees any more than we do and are just as exasperated with their politicians. At JFK airport on my way home I overheard a spontaneous discussion between two strangers in the queue for Peet's coffee. One was a mother whose 26 year old son had been flying helicopters in the military and was desperate for a university education, but knew that four years in college was both prohibitively expensive and unlikely to lead to a high-paying job. The local lumber mill in the woman's town was now only employing graduates because they were so plentiful and jobs so sparse. Her fellow traveller was deeply sympathetic, but despairing of America's polarised politicians. Both bemoaned Obama's failure to deliver on promises for help with further education and a boost in jobs. But despite their complaints, I sensed that they didn't feel hopeless about the future, there was a hint that they still shared a vision of 'the American way' eventually triumphing.
America is hugely patriotic, over 300 million strong, and split only two ways, unlike Europe, which is split in 26 even before you get down to the national level. Americans aren't as deep-rooted as us, they're open to change and travel (as long as it's not abroad). You can't help thinking that America will somehow be the first to break the current economic and political impasse by finding a way of investing massively in modern manufacturing businesses and education. It has to, so it probably will.
My kids liked it but didn't, I sense, love it enough to want to up-sticks and live there. I guess the difference between 2012 and 1983 when I first went as a 16 year old, is that we Brits now have just as many gadgets and shopping malls, and perhaps even more wealth and security than the average American. The 'wow' factor has gone. In fact, America now feels a little slow on the uptake - all that sun and no solar panels anywhere, for example. All that separates us is culture, history and landscape. Like Britain and the rest of Europe, America feels to me to be still floundering in search of its 21st century mission. But something tells me it will find it and get going sooner than we do. I guess it'll have to wait until after the November election, but when it does rediscover its mojo it'll surely be good for all of us. It can't happen soon enough.
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