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Images of America Opus Two
Last uploaded : Sunday 17th Oct 2004 at 02:53
Contributed by : The Editor


17 October 2004

Images of America - five weeks on

Subscribers will have read the article on this site posted in early September in which we waxed lyrical about the United States.

Over a month on , after much time spent in various states, several cities and many remote rural villages, the images are even more powerful. The overwhelming affection with which Americans of every colour and creed hold the United Kingdom and the British people is palpable. This makes it all the more painful that the sentiment is not mutual in the streets and pubs of London and elsewhere. On this site we have written many times about the peculiar ailment known as European anti-Americanism that has become more pronounced and even visceral in the years since September 11, 2001. What is remarkable is the unconditional love Americans express for everything British, from our Prime Minister to our quirky food to our television drama.

Admittedly there have been a few less-than-cordial encounters whilst here. Trying to get anything, be it a driving licence or simple train ticket require ID checks that are stringent and often strident in their execution. Without doubt, since September 11th 2001 individuals in authority have acquired a coldness that runs against the ?have a nice day? cordiality that was the trademark of American business. The nineteen hijackers were likely to have been wished a nice day and cheerily whisked through the departure gates with a good-natured, ?This way, hon,? but no more. Even a bespectacled, middle aged woman is now asked for ID and told ?How do I know it is yours without seeing your card? ? when she rattles off her social security number from memory. ?

Taxi drivers in Washington and Philadelphia drive about in dilapidated and rattling vehicles, and the Philly ones are sullen, hostile and often aggressive. What a shame the London cabbie has become yet another purveyor of anti-American sentiment; he is an otherwise example to the rest of the world for immaculate vehicles and informative conversation. In sleepy rural Vermont, an irate customer at a service (petrol) station argued with an even more irate cashier because he wanted to pay with a one-hundred-dollar bill. One really thought the argument would result in a murder, and for a fleeting moment it could have been a London greengrocer fuming at a customer with a ?50 note. The cashier said ?I will be fired if I take that from you,? and eventually the matter was settled with small change dug out of the customer?s pockets, but one?s illusions about a nation filled with cheery folk were slightly dashed.

But just for a moment.

In four weeks the huge majority of Americans met on this journey have been the warmest, most generous and cordial human beings one could ever hope to encounter. At the opening concert at twilight of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, under a glorious sky and in the shadow of the Capitol Building at one end and the Washington Monument at the other, the women on either side of me were eager to know me. Soon the husband of one joined us and promptly went to fetch food to share. As Buffy Ste Marie and Rita Coolidge sang tribal lyrics, circular clouds formed overhead and audience members spontaneously left their seats and danced with strangers. When my new friend?s husband arrived with food, the sun had set and the crowd had swelled to capacity. Atop the Capitol dome the light signifying a Congressional vote was flickering, a curious sight in the milieu of an overwhelming hurt and sadness in the sounds of the singers? chants: the words were strange to us but the women?s chants stirred thoughts of the truly ancient history of these much-trod-upon peoples. My new friends gave me their address and telephone numbers and this became a pattern throughout this trip. Like Israelis, Americans have an immediacy that is endearing and their generosity is genuine.

In Washington the warmth of new acquaintances as well as the generosity of colleagues met only through e-mail was a continuing source of wonderment. In Philadelphia and New York the same phenomenon occurred. An eminent writer with whom I had only corresponded by e-mail promptly invited me to stay overnight. We watched the Vice Presidential debate amid a spread of food and drink and one felt as if one had known the hostess for decades. At the outdoor street party held for Philadelphians who wished to watch the Presidential debate on a large screen, I was dismayed to see a burly and hostile veteran not letting anyone pass who wore a Kerry button, citing what he saw as the candidate?s betrayal of his comrades in arms when he formed the Vietnam Veterans? peace movement. The Presidential campaign engenders extreme emotions at present, and this is one area of American life in which ?have nice day? is not in the equation. In turn an electoral registrar on a main street bitterly complained that a colleague had inflamed a prospective new voter by denigrating President Bush and expressing displeasure that the prospective registrant wished to be a registered Republican.

Notwithstanding the dark cloud hanging over the political scenario, a long journey on Amtrak from Philadelphia to Northern Vermont resulted in an exchange of cards with a delightful and fascinating train companion who has made me promise to stay with her in North Carolina; once in the Green Mountain State I was hosted by yet more first-time acquaintances and driven all over the Northeast Kingdom with not one complaint. Meals were cooked for me and doggy bags made up for my long journey back to Philadelphia.

Boarding the train in Vermont a woman exclaimed, ?You were on the train coming up!? and once again I was engaged in an absorbing discussion of Presidential politics and world affairs. This encounter brought to mind a tirade I had witnessed in a restaurant just after 9/11, when an American couple was berated by a group of diners at the next table about the world?s evils being the result of the ?worthless educational system? of the United States. Aside from the fact that the Americans?meal was spoilt by the relentless shouting of one particular individual, it was embarrassing to hear fellow Britons accusing them of being ?idiots? when I could see that all of the Americans wore college rings. In Britain we still accept it as routine that young people can be ?school leavers.? Yes, it is true that in the United States any Tom, Dick or Harry may attend Podunk College if he can catch a football, but in Britain our literacy problems remain a blot on the landscape. Were it not for the appalling deterioration of our grammar and punctuation skills, Lynne Truss would not be a millionaire from her book of English usage lamentation, ?Eats, Shoots and Leaves.? The highly enlightened and well-informed people I have met, even in the most remote of American villages, bear no resemblance to the ?idiots? so many Europeans perceive walking the streets of the USA.

I am nearing the end of my journey through Northeastern United States and have a heavy heart. It would be a dream to stay here. This vast and beautiful nation has always been a magnet for immigrants and after four weeks here I can well understand a physicist being willing to work in a bakery just to remain in the United States. The American experiment has had many ugly moments and is in the grips of a disturbing chapter in its history, compounded by the unsavoury fact that some 45 million citizens have no health insurance. Nevertheless there is an energy that emanates from its city streets and village paths and a warmth that is infectious. I am humbled by it and will not let the next ?America basher? pass by without a fierce rebuke.

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