Friday, 2 January 2015

The Land of the Free! (if you watch what you say...)

A road trip from Tennessee to California

Some Limey cultural observations from a trip across the US

Guns, freedom of speech, kitsch patriotism, Jeremy Clarkson and placeholder men
My daughter, wife and I recently took a road trip across the US, from Tennessee's Smokey Mountains to San Diego, via Nashville. Memphis, Dallas, Fort Worth and the Big Bend National Park. It is a beautiful country, there can be no denial of that. And the great thing about the US is that, with some exceptions like taxi drivers and other people who really need to do so, they can speak English (to a fashion) so you can find out what people think.
So, apart from having a holiday, I made it my business to pry into thoughts of those that make up the world's most powerful nation.

Guns and Memphis

There are guns everywhere. There are signs about leaving your guns at at home, signs about those who would make you leave your gun at home and signs linking guns with religion, freedom and probably butter and dolphins too.
It's intriguing for us Limeys as we don't live with guns. Our police, apart from specialist units, don't have them. And if you want one you're generally considered a bit odd. But I'm not crass enough to think: "They just shouldn't have them," although I do think they just shouldn't have them.
I remember years ago thinking that the Orange people of Northern Ireland could just stop marching through contentious areas but it was only when I went to Belfast for work that I realised how ingrained, on both sides, many traditions are. Though everyone can see how much misery these marches cause, it is difficult to see how you could stop them, it seems to be part of the DNA of some societies.
We met a young couple in Memphis's Benihana, the Japanese chain restaurant where each table has a chef who throws your food around and then cooks it in front of you. You share your table with other people, which can be brilliant or terrible. In this case, it was pretty good. We had that lovely moment us Brits love on shared tables when we're asked for our order and the table cries out: "Where are you guys from?!" It turned out our nearest companions, let's call them Marty and Anneke, were a recruitment consultant and a private investigator respectively. After a few pleasantries about jet lag and The Beatles the subject turned to guns (only because I asked). It turned out that Marty, recruitment consultant, had three. Anneke PI, whose specialism was using virtually any means at her disposal to find evidence that would help defend violent criminals, had none. Zero.
Marty actually had three guns. One for hunting, one for target practice and God only knows what the other one was for, murdering clients probably. What Marty didn't have though was a licence to carry a gun around with him in his pocket or wherever on his person.
"My dad has one of those," he said. "He got his car radio stolen a few months back. He doesn't want that to to happen again."
The car Marty's dad really wanted. Actually an exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville
Anneke rolled her eyes at this. "He wants me to have a gun but our boss won't allow it. Our clients are a bit different to Marty's. They would just take the gun from me and shoot me with it. Or shoot someone else."
We explained the general UK (non-UKIP) view on guns to Marty but he just smiled. "It's our lives," he said. "It's just what we do." I asked about the stolen car radio and how a gun helped protect the car radio when Dad wasn't near the car: "It just makes him feel better," said Marty. "Do you know Jeremy Clarkson?"
I came away from there thinking that these people are delightful, but I'd have to put the guns in a mental box and ignore them. I'm sure I'd even like Marty's dad, but I would give his car a wide berth.

Kitsch patriotism and placeholder men

Sunset over the Big Bend National Park
One of the great things you can do in the US is visit its National Parks. They are managed by park rangers passionate about their work and environment. And the parks are extraordinarily beautiful. Texas' Big Bend Park on the Mexican border is a great example; it comprises desert, mountain, the Rio Grande, mountain lions and pig-like creatures called javelinas.
The border between Mexico and the USA is the Rio Grande. In some places it's little more than a ditch and in others it really is quite grand. I questioned the park rangers about illegal immigration; we had been stopped several times by border police and asked to prove we were US citizens, which was hard. We were generally allowed to carry on unmolested, apart from the one time that a helpful border guard decided to give me tourist advice on a place we weren't going to. When I got back in the car Mrs E told me that his colleague had leant into the car saying to her: "Keep away from all those places he told your husband about, they're all shit."

Bob, a delightfully informative park ranger, doing his 'thang'
Anyway, back to the point. I wanted to know why Mexicans didn't just walk across the Rio Grande's little bits. the ranger told me that there was so much desert on the Mexican side that it was difficult to get to the narrow bits of the Rio Grande. And even if they did, there was the Big Bend Park on the US side, which was primarily desert too so it was a great natural barrier. And anyone with a massive Mexican hat on would stick out like a sore thumb across the arid plains. Or die of thirst.

That cliff is Mexico. I touched it so technically I've been there
We took a trip on the Rio Grande. We went on a raft guided by, for the sake of anonymity, Rita. Rita was an extraordinary woman; slight in build yet able to direct the raft over and around the most rugged parts of the Rio Grande. She was also a paradox of opinions. And like many Americans we met she was glad to share some opinions with us she couldn't possibly discuss with her fellow citizens. Obviously immensely proud of her Texan roots, she was at the same time fed up with the way that gay people were treated in Texas, and with what she termed 'kitsch patriotism' across the US. We had some idea of this ourselves. It was not possible to go to many public events without having to go through the national anthem, a speech about the nation and then onto recognising anyone in the forces in the audience.
Just one flag
Now I value what the forces do as much as anyone else; I come from a military family, as does my wife, and I joined the Territorial Army, albeit for a short while, during the 80s. But there comes a point where too many flags, too many anthems and too many speeches wander into misplaced nationalism. America has a lot to be proud of but in the hands of lunatic nationalists who will accuse anyone without stars and stripes underwear of being a communist, being openly proud of your nation can be less attractive to many. This has happened in the UK where misuse of the union flag and cross of St George by right-wing organisations means that showing these flags now is seen by some as demonstrating right-wing lunacy, rather than appreciating being British.  I could see that some Americans clearly thought this as well but were too worried for their jobs and friends' and families' opinions to say so.

An interesting part of the trip was lunch. Rita and a colleague who was guiding another raft down the river set up a lovely picnic for us. The 'crew' of the other raft were some American college boys who were clearly more interested in my daughter's thoughts on the world than mine. However, they did manage to ask me if I ever manage to "meet up with Jeremy Clarkson in London."

A heron-type bird looking for fish in the Rio Grande
We asked Rita about guns and she was concerned about how many people had them: the unstable, the drunks and those who don't guard them properly.  But she recognised that the subject was pretty much untouchable. And when we discussed living in the outback, as she did, she said that she didn't mind the snakes so much as she was able to pick them off with her shotgun.

Rita also took it upon herself to give some advice to my 17-year old daughter, who had recently broken up with her boyfriend, in a fairly emotional way. "Girl's gotta get herself a placeholder man. That means she gets to be kept warm at night, if you know what I mean honey, and she don't shed a tear when he's gawn." Judging by the turmoil my daughter had put us through over the latest break up, I couldn't argue with Rita.

Politics and the Big Bend

Walking back to my cabin in the park one night I was astonished at the sky. It was so full of stars it was almost white. Instead of going back to the cabin I decided to sit out and look upwards for a while. The family was slightly worried (or hopeful) I'd be dragged off by mountain lions. One Trip Advisor reviewer had marked the park down to one blob as a member of his party had been bitten by one of these animals; this seemed unfair as sightings were very rare indeed. In fact some people might have marked it as five-blob experience for such up-close action.

Excellent cover for mountain lions, javelinas or Chas, potential serial killer
Anyway, I sat there gazing upwards and was disturbed by a rustling behind me. My first thought was about mountain lions. Then I calmed down as I remembered the cute javelinas. And then I saw the shape of a man and thought about serial killers. Every two people in five has a murder habit and a dissection dungeon the US if its film and book industry is anything to go by.
But I needn't have worried, it was Chas, a college lecturer. He had seen me wandering out to the view the stars and thought I might be an expert he could learn from. Poor him, I could just about tell where the big saucepan is at home, and all I know about the Milky Way is that you can (prior to the Advertising Standards Authority's intervention) eat it between meals.
Chas and I shared his binoculars, pointing out bits of sky we knew, which wasn't many for me. And of course I got him in to my favourite topics. Chas's big concern in the US was health. He was with Obama on what he was trying to do to sort out health care but Obamacare was complex and for many right-wing Americans the thought of a healthcare system that cares for everyone might as well be set up by Lenin. I told him what I'd seen on various forums, written by Americans about the UK's National Health Service (NHS), which many described as a feature of a "communist state".  I remarked to Chas that we'd be the only communist state whose head of state is there by birth. But then I had to admit to North Korea. Chas said that he felt as able to express his views at work on healthcare as he would had he lived in North Korea.

A dangerous job putting out the GIs' trash...
Chas was surprised firstly that I'd be interested in his fellow citizens' opinions and secondly that so many right wingers would even know about the UK's NHS. I told him that any interest from overseas was good for perspective on how good/useless we are in the UK. But I was annoyed at ignorant opinions. I described how, in a drive across Arizona and California a couple of years before, I had listened to a US forces broadcast where a US Army colonel who claimed he had been in Afghanistan had described all other 'allied' nations as "Only there to put out the GIs' trash." I could not believe what I was hearing. The UK watched, horrified day after day, month after month, at aeroplanes bringing back the coffins, draped in union flags, of members of our forces who were described as little more than 'trash-can emptiers' by a senior US officer who should know better.
I could tell that Chas was angry at this too. He said he appreciated how I must have felt hearing this. I said he needn't feel for me, I didn't know any of the dead people but could those responsible for these broadcasts imagine the reaction of UK forces' families to such idiotic and deceitful propaganda if they ever heard of it? Or was putting out the trash for GIs the single bravest job in Afghanistan?

San Diego to London

One of San Diego's biggest tourist attractions
In San Diego we decided to visit our old friend Benihana again. And we were not disappointed. We sat with a lovely Jewish couple, David and Sarah (for anonymity again). They were from a fairly strict religious background and had been set up with each other by their families. "Which was lucky," they said, "As we quite like each other."
They were interested in the whole British thing and were planning to go to London "Someday." Of course the subject invariably made its way around to Jeremy Clarkson. We asked how he had become so popular in the US. "It's because we made our own Top Gear show and it's crap," they said. "Clarkson says what he likes and people love that. The presenters here just are not allowed to do that or maybe couldn't do it anyway as we're not used to it."
So it seems that the answer to popularity is to seek a copycat and make sure it's bloody awful.
On a final note, Sarah asked us how we were getting home. We said by British Airways, on the direct flight. Her eyes lit up at this. She told us that there had long been a campaign in San Diego to get a London flight and when BA finally agreed to do this the whole city was delighted. I thought no more about this until we got to the airport the following day. San Diego airport is principally domestic, when our incoming, fairly common 777 landed to take us home, there was a frisson of excitement at the airport, which gave me a little bit of non-nationalistic pride.

Some other photos

How to sell sausages in the US

Inside the sausage machine, quite literally

Fairly unique garden ornament, on sale in American Airlines' Sky Mall magazine

Miraculous cure

Colman's, more than a match for this watery stuff

One of the USA's most unfortunately named ranches

This says to me: 'Privately run prisons'

'Amputated foot for demonstration purposes only'



Elvis' microwave