Having arrived in Australia's culture capital Melbourne, I am giving life 'Down Under' a go. I have achieved the most important aspect of a happy life and have landed myself an amazing group of friends (more of them later) and have a super flat with work in the pipeline. This time has enabled me to look back on the madness of my seven months travelling and inspired me to write a blog post for each country which goes some way to elaborate on the incredible experiences I had in each place.
The first stop on my journey was North America and I was immediately struck by the fact that Bigger is Better with absolutely everything, from the buildings in New York, to the milk sold by the gallon, to the giant Hummers powering down the freeways of Arizona. Perhaps this obsession with big comes from America's natural landscape. It is huge. There is the intercontinental joke that in England we say 'it's only 200 years old' but in the US they say 'it's only 200 miles away'. As jokes go it's not likely to feature in the repertoire of any of the comedians in the Melbourne comedy festival but it does demonstrate a few interesting points.
Firstly the ever-so-slight defensiveness that exists in the US about any perceived lack of history. Anyone who visits America will know that they do being 'Proud to Be an American' in a big way. Flags abound by the dozen on any important building and it isn't unusual to see the Star Spangled Banner beaming proudly from suburban houses from Connecticut to California. However if you go to Washington D.C you will see immediately that there has been a very deliberate effort to commemorate American history from the cultural exhibitions about American food to the very powerful exhibitions on the abolition of slavery to the stunning (and yes enormous) monuments and memorials. There is no way the Americans will let being a relatively 'new' country stop them from celebrating every stage in their historical journey. And why should they? I couldn't help admiring the shiny eyed pride with which an American will tell you which state they are from and quite often tell you a fact about it! While I am proud of lots of things about being British (Shakespeare, Austen, Fish and Chips) I doubt my wry grin when I say I'm from London (baby!) could quite compare to the beaming smile of an American.
In the 'bigger is better' scheme of things North America has got it nailed when it comes to nature. The beauty of the national parks is overwhelming and one (Wrangell- St Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska don't you know) is larger than Switzerland and spans three different climate zones! Niagara Falls, which straddles the border of the U.S. and Canada, is one of the largest and certainly the most famous waterfalls in the world. The experience of getting completely soaked and having your breath literally taken away on the Maid of the Mist as it carries hundreds of people into that horseshoe shaped marvel is a moment I will never forget as long as I live. America also has the honour of being home to the first natural sight that made me cry with the joy of being alive and part of such a stunning world: The Grand Canyon. I flew over it in a helicopter and the sheer majesty and scale brought real tears of wonder to my eyes. Perhaps that is what marks out a wonder of the world.
There is also the bizarre blend of the big obsession with image that rubs awkwardly alongside the total fixation on food. As you walk around the streets and malls of America you are confronted with the fact that this is a nation consumed with the idea of the perfect image. Advertisement posters are everywhere with pictures of teeny skinny girlettes modelling the latest trends and then you go home and turn on the TV to see infomercial after infomercial decreeing the benefits of the latest and (obviously) greatest fitness trend designed to get you slimmer, trimmer, leaner, meaner and even at times greener if a certain blending fitness craze is to be believed.
This bombardment of images of the perfect body and the various ways to achieve it is seemingly matched in scale and scope with the absolute and total glut (excuse the pun) of ways and places and things to eat. You can get food anywhere and everywhere. Places with a population of 200 will still have a giant Taco Bell, a vast McDonalds and a massive KFC. In The big cities it is impossible to walk more than two paces before you reach a restaurant, a cafe and probably a street cart all offering their tasty wares. The food available itself is also big, in portion size obviously, but also in ingredients, the food was somehow both saltier and sweeter and more brightly coloured than anywhere else I had ever been.
During my six weeks travelling from East to West then I learnt that: Americans are proud, and in countless ways this is more than justified. I learnt that I would need to expand my mind to cram in the vast scale of beauty on offer on this enormous continent. I also learnt in one very embarrassing vom-in-bin incident in Bryant Park in the middle of New York City that combining the big obsession with food in the form of a giant deli pastrami sandwich, and the equally big obsession with the body beautiful in the form of a massive, sweaty outdoor yoga class should not be attempted within the same time frame. God bless America.