I never really ‘got’ America. Growing up in the 80’s, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. I loathed Sesame Street with its patronising characters and mispronunciation, “it’s zed, not zee”, whilst cult soap operas Dallas and Dynasty (“Dienasty”) with shoulder pads, perms and scandal told a tale of adult extravagance and superficiality that I couldn’t relate to.
In real life, away from the tv screen, the cool thing to do for your birthday was to head to McDonald’s, sit on red and yellow plastic chairs, have Ronald McDonald sing to you, and eat burgers and fries. Fine, but I’d rather be outdoors trying to stay upright on a dry ski slope, or learning to trampoline.
Holidays were all about Disney. Either you’d been, were going, dreamt of going but your family couldn’t afford it or, if you were like me, really couldn’t see the appeal of monster-sized Mickey Mouse anyway. Why would you?
And then there was my pen pal, Misty. The pen pal scheme was something set up by our school to help us with writing skills, as well as to learn about new cultures. I wrote to Misty to ask what her real name was. Misty, she replied. “Write me soon.” What? I wanted to re-educate her.
Even the American educational elite couldn’t seem to grasp the basics of simple pronunciation. When Harvard called and invited me to apply for a sports scholarship I explained that I’d already applied to Loughborough. In every subsequent phone call, I bit my tongue as the Harvard man attempted to dissuade me from the evil purple lights of Luff-buh-roe.
All the evidence suggested that America was a country of manufactured artificiality, poor grammar, bad pronunciation, strange names and dreadful fashion.
And then there was the lack of ‘history’. The Greeks and Romans didn’t make it to the USA and so with no crumbling temples or amphitheatres, and no Royal family, there’s little to show of American culture or history. At least that’s how I found the generally accepted consensus.
A Californian honeymoon, a visit to Yosemite National Park and a drive down Highway 1 changed all that. It was the antithesis of everything my preconceptions of America were. It was not a plastic, manufactured, silicone injected country, but a diverse nation with breathtaking scenery on a majestic scale.
I’ve not seen more natural, rugged, unfettered landscape than in the heart of the Californian National Park. Any human intervention has been sympathetically managed with tourism in mind, to make the park accessible to all, so whether you’re an adventure climber, or a wheelchair user you can enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Everything is in keeping with the area, the free shuttle buses are eco-friendly and there’s a distinct lack of neon lights, plastic signage and Mickey Mouse ears.
A world heritage site, more than three million visitors flock each year to see the mountains, waterfalls and Giant Sequoia trees, yet it is so vast (1200 square miles) that other than in the real tourist areas, there’s no sense of being in a tourist trap, and walking around you cannot help but be awed by the enormity of it all. And what was that about a lack of history? The rock formations are about as prehistoric as I’ve ever seen, and ever likely to see.
Coastal route Highway 1 continues the rugged ‘realness’ of the Californian landscape. There’s absolutely nothing artificial about the way the sea crashes and foams against the spectacular cliff edges, the way the seals sunbathe and sleep on the shore, or the way the road twists and turns in tune with the rock. It’s a route regularly lauded as one of the most scenic drives in the world. I’m not going to argue.
Where California opened my eyes to the surprises that America holds in store for its visitors, New York underlined it, bolded it and put it in all-caps italics. I was expecting tall buildings and functional mass consumerism and it delivered – and then some. With a Starbucks on every street corner, there was no risk of me suffering a caffeine deficiency. Crikey, there was even a quick buck to be made by the street traders who’d set up camp alongside the tourist attraction which was the Occupy Wall Street Protest groups.
I was not, however, expecting tall buildings boasting beautiful architecture and evidence of philanthropic good deeds (for which, see the Rockefeller Centre). Equally, I was not expecting the tall buildings to be packed around quietly grand churches and cathedrals. In retrospect I don’t know why I was surprised by this. Perhaps I was just thinking Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and the home of American exports, Gap and Levis. By far the most poignant fact of all I took away with me, was that the only building in the World Trade Centre site not to be damaged when The Towers came down was tiny St Paul’s Chapel.
I was expecting to need to be on my guard, to feel wary on the Subway and along side streets. I was not expecting the offer of directions from ‘locals’, or unsolicited help when we’d lugged our jam-packed cases down the wrong steps at the Subway station. I wasn’t expecting to be entertained on the Subway by body-popping teenagers after tips for their gymnastic performance. And I certainly wasn’t expecting to see a construction worker in a yellow hard-hat having his shoes buffed at Grand Central Terminal.
From the top of the tallest towers, the art deco Empire State Building and its neighbour, the Rockefeller Centre, the city quietly stretches out, an orderly arrangement of matchbox buildings with yellow lego blocks snaking up, down, left and right, transporting passengers along the logical and well-considered grid system; a system which I’d previously dismissed as being ridiculously simplistic and devoid of character. In practice, the grid system is a tourist’s gift, a legacy of foresight and brilliant planning.
New York is a city of diversity, big ideas and big buildings built with consideration, pride and an artistic flourish.
At least I was right about one thing. America does everything BIG.