‘Conclusions’

So – one week after leaving Washington, eight weeks after I began, and 46 posts later, I’ve reached the end of my ‘travelogue’ – I’ve finally run out of things to say about my time in America (or at least, I’ve run out of blog-able things to say).  It’s been a long trip, and my six weeks in Philadelphia seems to have floated away in acres of time.  It has been a varied trip, as my erratic and fragmentary blog posts have illustrated!  But then, that reflects my own broad interests, and I hope you can forgive me for jumping from town planning to a photo gallery to an article on the Civil War to something on the philosophy of travel.  All I can say is that hopefully there has been something here for everyone (even if it was only the photos!). 

This isn’t a trip I’ll forget in hurry.  Not only because I had such an amazing time, but because my five-week research project on the history of tourism is merely the beginning of a very long process.  Indeed, the hardest part is yet to come: I have another seven months of further research, analysis, meetings, write-up and deadlines.  I currently think of Philadelphia with a certain amount of nostalgia: a city flooded with sunlight and history, full of fountains and friendly faces.  How long before I start to think of the city as an intellectual millstone around my neck?  Let’s hope my current enthusiasm for my dissertation topic can be maintained!

This blog post – my final one on America– must now act as conclusion, epilogue, and contents page.  It is hard to categorise such varied blog posts on such a wide-ranging trip, but wordpress insists that I make an attempt.  So for those of you who have joined late, a quick guide to the categories:

  • ‘American Culture’ looks at various issues associated with tea drinking, accents, and food; some of the attractions I visited; and some observations on history.
  • ‘American history’ looks more specifically at sites I visited and what they say about American attitudes to history (a topic I found particularly engaging).  There are also articles on the history of Philadelphia and its buildings, and cultural snippets I found in the archives.
  • ‘Dissertation research’ looks at what I did, what I found out, and how I went about finding out what I found out.
  • The oddly named ‘Diary’ refers to days out and social events, including trips to the seaside and the cinema.
  • ‘The Tourist’ looks at some of the tourist attractions I visited, with observations on anything from Charles Dickens and penal reform, to a civil war battlefield, to observations in an art museum.
  • ‘Cultures of Travel’ is a more abstract section looking at ideas and philosophies of tourism.
  • There are then categories for the different stages of my trip (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC) and another called (optimistically) ‘vaguely humorous’

As for the blog… well, I certainly didn’t envisage it turning out like this eight weeks ago.  It has been far more wide-ranging, experimental, addictive and (therefore) prolific than I thought; I’ve certainly enjoyed rediscovering a buried love of writing, and hope it’s been similarly engaging to read.  I hope you will forgive the misuse of language, excessive verbiage, and frequent patronisation/generalisation/stereotyping of America… 

I don’t think there is any grand, sweeping conclusion – as I’m sure you’ve noticed, this blog hasn’t been particularly coherent with a beginning and end, but more of a stream of ideas.  I could dress this up by saying that life isn’t composed of tidy compartments and conclusions… and perhaps I’ve just found the final observation on America.  You certainly can’t pigeonhole America or Americans.  Blow apart that national stereotype and those thoughts on the political climate, as America is a multi-faceted, diverse and astonishing country, and fascinating to visit.

This blog was created as a travel narrative, and I’ve reached the end of my arc.  So what now?  Well, I’ve enjoyed writing far too much to give it up.  There will be a void in my life that would probably be filled by exercise or something, and we don’t want that.  I will probably continue in some sort of format, but what?  Well, time will tell.  Stay tuned.

An Englishman in America

The question was inevitable: “so, what do you English people really think of Americans?” 

Hmm.  How exactly are you meant to answer such a loaded question?  We all have that typical American in mind – a redneck perhaps, a born-again Christian maybe, a patriot and gun owner, and of course totally ignorant of a world outside their country (or at least, a world that is populated by anything other than threatening masses of Mexicans, Arabs, Communists and terrorists).  Yet this was completely contrary to the intelligent, articulate students expectantly waiting for an answer. and to admit to such an unreasonable, unfair, yet pervasive picture of a mythical American seemed almost embarrassing.

National stereotypes are illogical and prejudiced.  I should say that up front, because I’m about to be proved a hypocrite: I couldn’t help rejoicing a little in my own.  I loved to live up to the qualities that Americans assumed I had been born with: sarcasm, a dark sense of humour, upper class snobbery (tongue in cheek, of course), a peculiar sense of dress, a love of tea, and the English accent.  It was a way of stating my separateness from the people of a nation with which Britain is closely associated, politically, historically and culturally.  I didn’t want to be taken for an American – not because I don’t like them, but because I was proud of my own identity.

My identity seemed to show itself most strongly in the way I spoke.  When I was introduced to someone for the first time (first name and nationality was the currency of choice), they would sometimes gasp in far too much excitement: “I love British accents!  Say something!” 

Umm…  

Others found my accent harder to hear – I know I can mumble, slur and stutter my way through any sentence, but from the amount of times I was asked to repeat myself (not just by ‘older folks’, but younger ones as well) it was as if I was talking a different language.  We are used to American accents and phraseology from the media, and it was easy to understand what people were saying; but it seems many Americans are unused to the British vernacular.  After a five minute conversation (well, more like an exchange of pleasantries) with a waiter, he asked “So, are you from France or something?”

One of the key disagreements between the British and Americans (it seems to me) is over the use and ownership of the English language.  Well actually, it is a one sided debate: Americans don’t seem to realise our angst over the words ‘elevator’ or ‘humor’. At the time I went away, the BBC website ran a couple of articles on Americanisms; well, I say ‘articles’, but one of them was more of a rant (“50 of your most hated Americanisms”, or a title to that effect).  When I posted them to my American friends, they were shocked by the passion of the debate.  “Languages are always evolving and assimilating new words!  Would these folks jettison the thousands of words borrowed from the French in the 11th Century?” asked one incredulously. 

The ultimate mark of an Englishman is a love of tea; a good brew seems largely unknown in America, yet everyone knew of it as our national obsession.  I played along, and although I’m not an addict, after a fortnight cold turkey I did rather crave a good cuppa.  Once I had my hands on some (almost) proper tea bags, I attempted to introduce our national pastime to my new friends at any opportunity.  One Californian friend referred to it humorously (before trying it) as ‘British crack’ – but after his first sip he was hooked.  His pupils dilated, his knee started shaking, and he started to talk uncontrollably.  (Well, I think it was sugar I added…)  By the time I left he was on a cup a day, offering me payment if I secured him a reliable supply.  British crack indeed.

A moment of triumph came as I hopped off the air-conditioned bus and into the 37°C heat of a late afternoon in Philadelphia.  As I walked up the street to my accommodation, I heard a woman’s voice from the shadows:  

“Hey, are you from England?” 

I stopped in surprise.  Yes, how did you know?  “It was the clothes.  Americans don’t dress like that.” 

Indeed Americans don’t. 

I like to try to ‘live like a local’ wherever possible when I travel as a way of learning about a place in more depth.  And so in the name of cultural assimilation, I tried out American pastimes (nothing too taxing – Starbucks, a trip to the sea, reading a book in a park, etc).  American food required more of a sacrifice – the mountains of junk posed a challenge to my normally ravenous metabolism, and probably took several years off my life expectancy.  But I was never – never – going to dress like an American. 

Baseball cap, string vest or baggy sports T-shirt, nondescript shorts and ‘sneakers’? 

The horror. 

I know my sense of dress is hardly indicative of an ‘English’ fashion (if indeed there is one), but the fact that my nationality was instantly recognisable was a source of huge pride.  It turns out that the woman who had proved so astute in recognising international styles of dress was homeless and asking for money; but still, I had been identified as an Englishman through and through, and this was a major victory.

Reading Washington

The United States of America is founded on the ideas of freedom, democracy and liberty: but what do these words mean?  What can it give you in practice?  The words thus become contested, fraught with conflict and connotations.  The Revolution, slavery and suffrage, civil rights and Civil War, words and blood are all part of the ongoing struggles over these meanings, struggles that have created modern America: an America that Americans are immensely proud of.  Historic sites associated with these events are few for a country of its size and relative youthfulness, so anything that does remain becomes a focus of attention and – that word again – pilgrimage.

There is Independence Park in Philadelphia, frozen in time to present an edited, unified and patriotic version of the revolutionary years and their aftermath.  There is Mount Vernon, George Washington’s farmstead preserved as it was the moment he died.  There is Gettysburg, symbolic of sacrifices made during America’s bloodiest conflict over the meanings of the Bill of Rights and Constitution.  There are the individual sites of Washington, DC: each monument, memorial and government building (particularly the White House and Capitol) presents its own message that grapples with the mysteries of what America means. 

But it is the city as a whole that provides the most important, complete and far-reaching messages.  These are built into the fabric of the city itself: wandering around Washington’s built environment, you are struck by the harmony of the streetscape, the ubiquity of the column, or the magnificence of a sudden view on to the grand dome of the Capitol or a glimpse of the White House.  This city, like all cities, is a slow accretion of the dreams, achievements and embellishments of generations of inhabitants.  When planning and building this city the Founding Fathers wanted a capital that could create a nation: this is not any city, but America’s most important statement of nationhood.   

Washington is therefore a city that can be ‘read’, a landscape that can be analysed much as you would a text.  In it are written ideologies and ideas, meanings and memories, of what the American nation is and should be.  The city is a statement, an aspiration, and a stage-set. 

The map of Washington DC is a work of art: a city of rationally ordered lines and diagonals, regimented squares and circles, and commodious parkland.  The ambitious plan of 1791, commissioned by George Washington, outlined the key features and street plan of a capital worthy of a new nation.  Here is the utilitarian gridiron made famous in Philadelphia: not only the most efficient way to divide lots for sale, but also a statement of egalitarianism and equality.  At the centre of the gridiron is the Mall: although planned as a grand European boulevard, its development languished for decades; it was later resurrected as a park and then became the cultural focus of the city, lined with museums and galleries. 

The 1792 design of Washington, by Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant and American Andrew Ellicott

Yet overlying this quintessentially American design are the diagonal avenues, radiating from the Capitol and Presidential Mansion like the rays of the sun.  This very Baroque feature imitates European thinking in city planning of the time.  Diagonal axes create focal points; lines of sight are drawn towards central features, accentuating their importance and grandeur.  Both the Capitol and White House are located on topographical high points, with commanding views over their surroundings; both sit at the centres of road networks like spiders in a web.  Presidential Mansion and Capitol are the loci of the city, a concrete manifestation of the importance that democratically elected institutions play in the new nation’s sense of self.  This is a city demonstrating Presidential and Congressional power.  This landscape is highly organised and centralised; perhaps even a little authoritarian – and maybe unsurprising, considering the Parisian origins of the city’s planner. 

Versailles, the Baroque city of centralised, authoritarian power. Notice any similarities in design?

The architectural harmony of the streetscape is particularly notable.  The new Capitol and Presidential Mansion, built at the end of the 18th Century, set the tone for style and colour: white for the purity and transparency of democratic institutions, classical to affirm the timeless values of civilisation – balance, order, and beauty.  The ideals of Rome seep through smooth marble.  Architecture bonds America to the ageless elegance of ancient civilisations, with aspirations to Roman glory. 

But the monumental architecture is not designed merely to be looked at.  These spaces are meant to be ennobling.  Buildings are able to shape your behaviour and exert an unconscious influence on your conduct.  Order in architecture can order the users of architecture: rational street layout and rational building design can rationalise subjects.  This was a common belief of city planners in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and is proved to an extent by architectural psychologists today.  A built environment shaped by unity, uniformity, order and logic is able to enlighten and educate citizens. 

Rising above the Potomac, their images scattered in the infinite reflections of pools and basins, are the monuments to Lincoln and Jefferson.  Symphonies – eulogies – in stone. Lincoln broods in his temple, gazing over the city he built. Jefferson stands, parchment in hand, looking over the tidal basin and Mall to the White House he inhabited.  Their heroic and iconoclastic settings leave little doubt as to their god-like qualities and the importance of the near-divine influence they had on the growth of America.  George Washington’s obelisk sets a different tone: rising on a grassy knoll, it offers fine views of the city whose site he approved.  It punctures the skyline, verifying his impact on the creation of the new nation. 

Scattered around the Mall are memorials to wars, sacrifices for freedoms hard-won; blood split in unifying or protecting the nation.  Nationhood is created through acts of remembrance: it unifies and heals through celebration and catharsis.  These are spaces of collective memory, where the great deeds of great men can enlighten and humble onlookers.  Visiting these spaces becomes a pilgrimage.

Washington DC has been created by generations of Americans: each adds to the city according not only to current aesthetic tastes, but to current ideas of what it means to be an American.  The built environment reflects these changing ideas, shaping the city that we see today and imbibing it with overt and covert messages on citizenship and nationhood.  These spaces are therefore not neutral or passive, but shape our own sense of today’sAmerica.  Washington DC is a history, biography and creed of a country, presenting what America has been, and what it could be.

My Washington DC

Washington’s designated attractions exert a powerful pull on the imagination; despite knowing the artificiality of the tourist experience, it was impossible not to engage with it.  And so I went to all the main ‘attractions’: White House, Capitol, Library of Congress, Washington Monument, Jefferson Monument, Lincoln Monument, mansions and museums.  With the click of the camera, I captured buildings and caught views that could belong in any tourist album.   People back home would have been disappointed had I not; ‘You mean you didn’t visit the Lincoln Memorial?  You didn’t bother standing at the gates of the White House, gawking through the iron bars?  Well, you didn’t really do Washington, did you?’

We have to see what we are wanted to see.  The media, travel literature, and peer pressure all exert conscious and unconscious pulls on our imaginations to structure our ‘sight seeing’; and so my family and I dutifully had a day ‘doing’ the government buildings, a day ‘doing’ the museums, and a day ‘doing’ the monuments and memorials.  We also had trips into the commercial centre (what little there is of it), Georgetown, and Embassy Row.  After four days, Washington ‘done’. We even had time for an excursion into rural Virginia to visit Mount Vernon: home and final resting place of Geogre Washington himself, only 40 minutes away from the city he founded.

I can’t pretend to know the city; anything I write about it can only be based on the most fleeting of visits, based on my own subjectivity (my interests, prejudices, and bias).  But that doesn’t matter – I don’t pretend to give an account of an actual Washington DC.  What is the actual Washington DC?  A collection of buildings and streets and grass that have no inherent meaning, only that which they are given by individuals.  Arguably, there is no actual Washington; there are millions of individual Washingtons, constructed in the imagination – not only of people who live, work and visit, but people who see images on the news, in films, on the internet, or tour it on Google Earth.

My Washington was rather empty; it lacked shops and restaurants and was imbibed with a certain artificiality – perhaps natural to carefully planned and structured capital cities.  There was plenty of empty space, lots of trees, and grandly harmonious – monotonous – classical buildings.  There seemed to be no real life; few bars and clubs, few ‘real’ Washingtonians on the sidewalks, few buildings devoted to life outside of federal government.  There were too many things to do to call it boring, but they were all aimed at tourists, not locals.

Had I visited when Congress resumes, or during colder weather, or on an internship away from the tourist loop, I would have undoubtedly have made different impressions.  But circumstances created a Washington unique to me, my Washington: elegant but empty, magnificent yet artificial; park-like, grand, lifeless.

Think Big: the culture of “more”

“Could I have the Rivermore pizza please?”

“Would you like the small or large?” asked the waitress sweetly.

“How big is the small?”

She tapped her pen on the side of her notebook. “Erm, fourteen inches.”

I gaped. “How large is the large?”

“Eighteen inches.” She smiled. “Yeah, it’s pretty big.”

My sense of proportion (as well as my waistline) finds the size of American portions difficult to comprehend.  How can the smallest sizes still be so damn big?  Popcorn buckets in which you could comfortably fit your head; helpings of ice cream that cost a days wages; or bottomless drinks and unlimited refills that could drain the Lake Superior. What is it with American’s sense of scale?

This is the home of the skyscraper and the SUV. Monster trucks are an enduring and perplexing source of entertainment.  The USA is home to the world’s largest military and the world’s largest debt.  It is home to the longest and widest highways in the world (the 29,500 miles Pan American highway and 26-lane Katy Freeway).  And then there are the Americans themselves – over 30% are clinically obese (and judging by my restaurant experience, it is remarkable the figure isn’t larger).

Americans have always had a sense of expansion. The country is just so large; in 1681 William Penn became the world’s largest (non-royal) landholder, governing the entire 44,000 square mile state of Pennsylvania (over five times the size of Wales).  Yet the march of progress westward through ‘empty’ territories opened up ever vaster expanses of space; Pennsylvania is today the 32nd largest American state, Alaska being twelve times larger.  During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the “Western Frontier” held an enduring fascination for Americans, calling to mind images of bravery and exploration - the possibilities were endless and the horizon infinite.  The sky was the limit.  And in the Manhattan and downtown Chicago of the inter-war period, even that boundary seemed breached.

In the birthplace of mass production and mass consumption, when America was a world leader in just about everything, consumers bought into the throwaway culture: things were cheap and plentiful, and if it broke, well, there was Plenty More.  Despite being dented by several depressions these values still dominate American culture (although with the debt crisis, they are increasingly questioned).  Plenty More Available becomes a statement of pre-eminence, and the ability to ask for it is proof that you are living the American Dream.

Size is a symbol of affluence.  The ability to gaze in exhaustion at an unfinished pizza whilst brushing crumbs off your bloated stomach is a statement of contentment; proof of your freedom to eat yourself into congestive heart failure.  ‘More’, ‘most’, and ‘extra’ (or maybe jumbo, super-size or all-you-can-eat) are words you will hear often in this country – and not just in restaurants. 

In the late 1870s,Philadelphia’s city authorities wanted to erect the tallest (inhabited) building in the world.  It was surpassed by a succession of skyscrapers in New York and then Chicago; the title of World’sTallest Buildingpassed to the Petronas Towers in Indonesiain 1998.  The biggest, tallest, longest, most visited, most expensive; special offers, competitions, and freebies: no longer hyperbole but truism.  The Ford Model T, the Empire State Building, McDonalds, the Space Race, or the pizza-eating challenge in Ocean City (beat the record, win 250 pies) are all symptoms of American’s thirst to be the best, the biggest, the boldest.  A quest that has led to a national health crisis, a national debt crisis, and a global environmental catastrophe. America has taught the world to live beyond its means.  The 18 inch pizza isn’t only threatening your cholesterol.

Power and Humility: the White House

As the guidebook mentions, the White House is one of Washington’s top attractions.  The house is internationally famous, ubiquitous in popular culture as home of the US President.  It is small in scale yet somehow imposing, rising on a hill over the Potomac, commanding views over the Mall all the way to the Jefferson Memorial, 1800m to the south.  The site of the future capital city was chosen by George Washington himself in 1791; he decided on the location of the future Presidential Mansion and selected the final architectural design.  George Washington wanted a home of the people: something that embodied the ideals of the young nation, something human-scaled and modest; an antidote to the European Baroque Palaces of centralised power. 

Mr and Mrs Adams moved into the not-quite-finished building in 1800, and since then it has been home to every US President.  Each successive occupant has left their mark on the building, be it extensions, decorations, ornaments or furniture; presidents occupy a ‘living museum’, a home that is never really theirs.  The walls have seen great events, towering intellects (and egos), debates, controversy and resolutions; but for the core of the Capitol, it is the oldest public building in Washington.

As ever when looking at American history, Americans view this not just as a historic site but as a symbol.  Like Independence Hall, Liberty Bell and Gettysburg, the White House speaks to something deep in the American psyche: it embodies ideals, aspirations and values.  The occupants come and go, but the White House – as a symbol of democratic ideals and peaceful political transition – remains. 

Patriotic and heartfelt (yet also jingoistic and self-important), the information boards of the White House Visitor Centre sum up these feelings far more eloquently than I ever could.

The White House is power and humility.  It is action and idea.  It is the multiple facets of who we are.  It is our national sense of ourselves conveyed by architectural details, by furniture that dates back to the first Presidents, by the intangible influences of previous occupants and events, and by the fine threads of protocol that bind historical courtesies to present hospitality.

We visit the White House to see ourselves and our history reflected within a small provocative space.  If we were to lose this physical structure of sandstone and paint, we would have lost merely an icon of our nationhood.  Yet if we were to permit a dictator to take control of these rooms, we would have lost everything.  It is the idea of the White House that perpetually draws us back.”

The Travel Guide

A new day, and a brand new city.  On the other side of the Potomac River lay unexplored territory: Washington DC, a city to which I had never been but had heard much of.  How was I to approach the impossible task of navigating this vast and complex area?

Luckily, the guidebook is on hand to tell me what to think.  I turned to “Washington DC at a glance”.

Washington is more than just the political capital of the United States.  It is also the home of the Smithsonian Institutions, and as such is the cultural focus of America.  Its many superb museums and galleries have something to offer everyone.  Always one of the most popular sights, the president’s official residence, the White House, attracts millions of visitors each year.  Equally popular is the National Air and Space Museum, which draws vast numbers of visitors to its awe-inspiring displays of air and spacecraft.  Also unique to Washington are its many monuments and memorials.  The huge Washington Monument, honouring the first US president, dominates the city skyline.  In contrast, the war memorials, dedicated to the thousands of soldiers who died in battle, are equally poignant.”

Here was a city of politics, culture, galleries, museums, white-washed houses, spacecraft, monuments and memorials, waiting to be discovered by the eager tourist.  It is superb, popular, awe-inspiring, unique and poignant with ‘something to offer everyone.’ 

I started on Capitol Hill.  “The cityscape extending from the Capitol is an impressive combination of grand classical architecture and stretches of grassy open spaces.  There are no skyscrapers here, only the immense marble halls and columns that distinguish many of the government buildings.  The bustle and excitement around the US Capitol and US Supreme Court contrast with the calm that can be found by a reflecting pool or in a quiet residential street.  Many of the small touches that make the city special can be found in this area…”

I shielded my eyes against a dazzling sun and looked down the grassy Mall to a large shimmering obelisk in the distance.  Then I turned to survey the immense neoclassical government buildings surrounding the Capitol.  I was impressed.  I had been told to be.

I climbed some blinding white marble steps and entered the Library of Congress.  My senses were immediately assaulted by a kaleidoscope of colour and texture and the din of many tourists.  What was I to think of this bewildering sensory overload?  Luckily the guidebook was on hand to make everything clear.  “Splendid marble arches and columns, grand staircases, imposing bronze statues, stained glass skylights, mosaics, and murals all combine to create a magnificent entrance hall.”  I looked around.  Magnificent?  I found it much too yellow and frankly a little gaudy.   

The Mall.  “In L’Enfant’s original plan for the new capital of the United States, the Mall was conceived as a grand boulevard lined with diplomatic residences of elegant, Parisian architecture.  L’Enfant’s plan was never fully realised, but it is nevertheless a moving site…” – and anyone who isn’t moved is clearly thick.

It is odd just how much guidebooks constrain and define not only our movements and what we see, but what we should think of what we see.  They designate what is to be an attraction and what is not; where is worth going to, and where is not; and specify exactly what it is about the site that we should find interesting. 

When describing these sites, the guidebook’s intended audience is an idealised tourist concerned with art, architecture and history; facts and figures are presented in a way that compels you to believe that this is all that is interesting, this is all that matters. 

What if I don’t want to know about the Capitol’s building phases, but about its symbolic power as an emblem of American democratic ideals?  What if I don’t want to know about the stained glass of the National Cathedral, but the reason for its location in a residential suburb far from the city centre?  What does this tell me aboutAmerica’s relationship between Church and State?  The guidebook is silent.  It doesn’t think I should be interested.

The guidebook creates an idealised, harmonious and grand city of federal offices, marble columns and nice restaurants, but leaves out the violence of the black ghettos, ignores the areas that become ‘no-go zones’ at night, and glosses over the frightening juxtaposition of poverty and wealth that is found everywhere in America, but particularly here.  The Washington DC of Eyewitness Travel is false and misleading – a mirage of neoclassicism and parkland.  The real city is unavailable for touring.