I say I remember the moment – its multiple moments sewn together. I’ve woken up at 5 am in some Youth Hostel in the suburbs of a strange city. I’ve had to sprint off back to the airport to catch my flight home. Flights. There are 2 connections. Well, I got to the airport late (public transport at 5 am is always a bit patchy, after all). Or maybe one of the flights was delayed on the runway for an hour. Anyway, I’m sprinting through some generic soulless hub airport in the middle of nowhere (Denver, CO/Dallas-Fort Worth/TX, Las Vegas) having drunk too much bad coffee and spent too much on overpriced airport food. I’m sleep-deprived and dreading the next hop homewards. I’ve still got to get from the final airport back home to bed, of course. And as I realise I’m in the wrong terminal altogether, I think to myself:
Why the **** am I bothering with all this travelling?!
I did a lot of travelling around the USA while I was over there. It cost me a lot of money. I ate a lot of mediocre food and coffee in transit. I grew to detest airports. What was the point of playing at tourist, aside from ticking cities off a list?
1. Understanding Other Cultures.
The St Andrews Lynx’s first Travel Tip? NEVER ask a native for insider information. Most natives are quite poorly travelled when it comes to their home countries – myself shamefully included. I’ve barely clocked up a week in London, the capital city of the UK. Glasgow attractions I couldn’t navigate without a map, and that city was only an hour away from where I spent 4 years of my life as an undergrad. If I’ve passed through any other major British/Scottish cities it was usually on business, and I don’t know anything about the local highlights. Tourist attractions such as Stirling, Dundee’s Jute Museum and North Berwick’s Seabird Centre were all places I was taken to by my parents before I’d even hit puberty – I haven’t returned to them since. It’s not like I’m especially poor or time-starved: I just don’t get out and about in my home country.
I guess it’s because I’ve never felt the need to. I’m Scottish, I know pretty much all there is to know about being Scottish (culture, history, national character, etc), it’s in my background and upbringing.
But when I went over to the States I didn’t know the first thing about being American. I knew about the major historical events that shaped the country (Colonisation, the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War) – but the chronology and details were patchy. I knew that Texans were big & brash, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea WHY.
It was a good job I kicked off my US exploration in Philly. I perused the Liberty Bell & Independence Hall, listening to the talks given by the park rangers. When I went to DC I examined the original Constitution and Declaration in the National Archives; I looked at the memorials to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and FDR. In the Deep South I saw the wealth that Southerners lived in – left on in their grand houses and stately “preservation district” cities – and I have my first inkling of why there was such a nasty Civil War in the first place.
…Suddenly, the history of America started to settle into a cogent picture, highlighted by the memories of seeing the primary evidence.
When I went down to Austin and San Antonio in Texas I checked out the Alamo and read the accompanying historical footnotes. I picked up on the fact that there was a major massacre and defeat of the Texan independence movement at the Alamo, and for some reasons Texas are incredibly proud of the fact. I can’t claim to empathise with Texans. But I have some (disturbing) insight into their psyche now. George W Bush II – in some perverse way – kinda makes sense…
2. Expanding your possibilities.
“…Actually, I think I could live here.”
“Nah, this place isn’t doing it for me.”
You really need first-hand information to make a judgement call such as that. I reckon I can tell within a few hours if I could tolerate living in a particular city. These aren’t just wishful daydreams in my case: Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Princeton all have universities I’m applying to for graduate study. The choice is not just about the reputation of the place – it’s about how I think I could get on living in their cities. That’s why I’m not applying to Columbia University or the University of Michigan, even though they are good organic chemistry grad schools: I think I’d go insane living in NYC or the back-arse of Midwestern beyond. I risk making myself deeply unhappy if I get that kind of choice wrong.
On the other hand, while Boston is not my ideal city – it’s a bit nippy up in New England, and the city isn’t scenically astounding – I wouldn’t have necessarily been enamoured with if I’d just came over for a few hours to look round Harvard Yards. It took a weekend exploring the Freedom Trail and going up to nearby Salem (to admire the House of the Seven Gables and the old seaport rather than the witchy kitsch) to make a reasoned judgement call.
3. Making popular culture come alive.
Films, TV serials, yada yada.
Two awesome books I read while over in the States “Devil in the White City” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” both were based firmly in cities, and draw heavily upon sense of place to shape the narratives. When marvelling skywards at Chicago’s ballsy skyscrapers and architectural marvels; or when eating leisurely brunch in Clary’s Restaurant in Savannah, GA…the book worlds suddenly become real.
Seattle was a bit too grimy for my personal taste. As a geographical location it wasn’t all that exciting for me, either.
I grew impatient to leave several days before my reserved train journey to Portland, OR. But…I tried parasailing on a whimsy while I was wandering along the dockside. You get strapped into a parachute at the end of a very long rope and flown off behind a speedboat. Was twitching for days after that. I also discovered Vietnamese cuisine while in Seattle – pho (a brothy soup) turned out to be a culinary highpoint of my stay in the USA. Entirely unplanned, but appreciated.
You can’t do parasailing in Philadelphia – there isn’t a suitable strait of water to tear along. Similarly, there aren’t any Vietnamese restaurants in Philadelphia that I would feasibly have just “stumbled upon”. You’d need to go elsewhere.
Travel is unquestionably worth it. I’ve learned by now that 3-day weekends with train journeys are preferable to a 2 day excursion with excessive airport-time at their end: it buffers out the stressful travelling bit, and takes off some of the nasty edge. Plus, it means I can get a more in-depth look at the place.
Here’s to the open road.