Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Last Hurrah?

We did it!

Exactly six months ago, I arrived a rather intimidated young man into the most ubiquitous country in the world, slightly frightened of being 15,000 kilometres away from my home, a little saddened at being in transit on Christmas Day instead of eating Nana’s Christmas dinner, but also excited for six months of wall-to-wall travel across an incredibly unique and diverse country, and at the fact there was snow on the ground. It may have been only two hours long, but I had a White Christmas, damnit. I remember up until the week before leaving, I didn’t quite realise the gravity of the task I was undertaking. My thought process had me believing that I was off for a brief sojourn in the noble USA, staying with a few people here and there, sing a bit, argue politics a bit, back home in no time. Then, with about seven days left before the trip began, it hit me a little. I was saying goodbye to my family and friends for seven months. Without a break (for a University student, going one month without a break is unthinkable, let alone seven). There was going to be no familiarity, no home bed, no footy, no Lygon St, no walks to the beach with the dog. By the time I arrived in Detroit, I was catatonic. All of a sudden the trip seemed insurmountable. For quite a while the days dragged, the nights were worse, and I cast an unfairly cynical eye over everything different (and sometimes even similar) in American society and culture. Six months ago, I could hardly imagine sitting down on my last night in the country, writing a final entry about my experiences. But here I am, the strange feeling of leaving familiar surroundings has returned, and I’m about to start the next big adventure – a month in Europe, all on my own. So, in the spirit of reminiscing and celebrating all that has happened during our Singers of United Lands 2011 tour, here are a few highlights and interesting occurrences I’ve yet to share.

·      Finding out the wrong way that the toilet I was using had a built-in bidet (Chicago, Illinois). Nothing quite like getting a surprise clean when you’re reaching for the toilet paper.
·      Silencing a group of middle-schoolers by telling them the reason I can sing so high is that ‘I never quite made it through puberty’ (near Detroit, Michigan).
·      Going to the only African-American Military History Museum in North America, and walking through impoverished black neigbourhoods, and being welcomed like family into every open door (Hattiesburg, Mississippi).
·      Being down in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. On the other hand, it was also humbling to see one part of the city buzzing, whilst the other half was still struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans, Louisiana).
·      Attempting to explain Constitutional Monarchy to a group of Fourth Graders, only to have the answer to my question ‘What to you have in the US instead of the Queen’ being ‘Freedom!’ I deserved it. (Clermont, Florida). It was interesting, however, to see how many Americans got so excited about the Royal Wedding just a few weeks later. A celebrity’s a celebrity, no matter how they get there.
·      Disney World (Orlando, Florida). Enough said.
·      Receiving marriage proposals from audience members at a high school concert (St. Augustine, Florida). Ask again in ten years, girls.
·      Being followed by tornadoes and storms from Florida and New York, but during that time, seeing some of the US’ most well-kept secrets of beauty in North Carolina and Tennessee.
·      Walking around Washington, DC, for an entire day, non-stop, and taking in some of the most important history of the USA. We also got within 100m of the President. We’re that special. (Washington, DC)
·      New York. Specifically, seeing two Broadway shows, a comedy show, walking around Times Square and Midtown, performing at the Australian Consulate (where I could finally let loose with all the Australian humour and obscure references), and seeing three of my high school teachers in a taxi (New York City, New York). Talk about a small world.
·      Stumbling through terrible French (usually to be rebuffed in bitingly acerbic English) in the beautiful, Euope-esque cities of Montreal and Québec (Montreal and Québec City, Québec, Canada).
·      Getting back to nature near beautiful lakes and coastline in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada).

In the past six months, we have visited 24 US states (plus Washington, DC), 4 Canadian provinces, and driven about 28,000 kilometres. I stayed with 51 host families, almost universally wonderful, and sang countless numbers of shows for possibly tens of thousands of people. My Facebook friend count has almost doubled (very important for a nineteen-year-old in 2011). Most of all, I spent six months with people I am so happy and proud to call my friends and colleagues, people I know will go on to do great things.

I never thought I would say this six months ago, but, USA, I’m going to miss you. Maybe I won’t miss your gross contradictions, you obsession with materialism, your overt reliance on cars and trucks big enough to take on army tanks, your fixation with fast and fried food, your decimation of natural land to build monstrous houses, roads, freeways, and strip malls; and your loud, obnoxious, and sometimes misplaced, patriotism. But I will most definitely miss your breathtaking natural beauty, your fierce defence of your way of life, your pizzazz and confidence, and most of all, I will miss the unmatched kindness, friendliness, and hospitality of your people, Illinois to Alabama, Vermont to Florida, and everywhere in between. I couldn’t have lasted six months without feeling as welcome as I did almost everywhere we went. I’m not going to say goodbye, because I know we’ll meet again. So I’ll just say see you later, be safe, stay happy, and thank you. Thank you for giving me the ride of a lifetime.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hospitality Mark II

 From making S'mores on the lake. All in a week's work.

About 23 weeks ago, I outlined my initial experiences with American hospitality in my first-ever blog. In hindsight, my initial summary may have been somewhat skewed by the fact that I had just arrived to a frigid northern winter, for six months, knowing nobody, the Poms winning the cricket, and having interacted only with people at airports, who, let’s face it, aren’t really people. From the moment you arrive at an airport to the moment you leave (be it at that one or another), you are in some form of suspended animation, which I have decided is a natural reaction to the knowledge that the next part of your life is going to be filled with suspicious glances, awkward prodding, plastic masquerading as food, and at least one film starring Matthew McConaughey. Don’t get me wrong, I love airports and flying – the thought that somehow a huge plane weighing thousands of tonnes, laden with hundreds of passengers and their luggage, can make it into the air and halfway across the world, blows my mind. It’s just a shame they have to make it so damned uncomfortable. But I digress. After five months of travel in the USA, and stays with 45 separate hosts, I have certainly come to greatly appreciate the wonderful hospitality that was extended to us almost everywhere. However, the Yanks have got a way to go before they can match their northern neighbours.

Apart from our initial issues with overzealous border officers in Quebec and a cold shoulder when testing out my French in Montreal (‘Un burger au poulet, s’il vous plait,’ I politely requested at the restaurant, in what I thought was impeccable French, only to have a sneer shot my way and ‘A chicken burger? Four ninety-five,’ as a response. Zero points for trying.), Canadians have been so overwhelmingly friendly that it’s almost enough to make you sick. To all those Canadians who get upset at the rest of the world stereotyping them as kind, polite pushovers, well, sorry guys, but you’re not doing yourself any favours. My first host mother, in Montreal, was actually offended that I didn’t ask her to do more for me – as if her getting up at 6.30 (she was an 80-year-old retiree) to ensure I got a nourishing breakfast before performing wasn’t enough. The Montrealers were just ridiculously kind to us in general. As soon as we arrived at our meeting point, sandwiches, brownies and tea were shoved down our throats, despite it being an hour after our lunch, and, as it would turn out, just an hour before dinner, which we were required to partake in, with copious amounts of wine (at least they had the foresight to buy a good Aussie chardonnay). We were taken to concerts, had dinner parties hosted in our honour, and were encouraged to generally run amok in the beautiful city. Montreal is one of those wonderful places where worlds combine – leave the Metro stations (which in themselves form a vast underground city) and you could be in any of countless North American cities, but walk a few blocks and you could be in Hong Kong. Another few blocks and it’s Paris, and a little further along I was back in Melbourne. Coupled with friendly Canadians (almost) everywhere, it was a brilliant start to our Canadian experience.

From Quebec, it was off to New Brunswick, the gateway to the ‘Maritime’ provinces of Canada. Due to their relatively small area and population, and their distance from major Canadian cities, the Maritimes have developed a unique dialect and small-town friendly culture, even in the ‘larger’ centres. Our first stop was McAdam, a tiny village just across the Maine border, and one of the strange kind of stops we endure once in a while whereby we arrive lateish in the evening, sleep, get up early in the morning, and leave. Usually this involves ‘Here’s the bed, ask if you need anything,’ a bit of idle chatter, sleeping, a quick breakfast, and off again. Not in McAdam, New Brunswick. We were shown to our rooms, and allowed to settle down. Then the barrage began.
‘So,’ began our host. ‘I’ve got beer, wine, soda, juice, water…beer…what’ll it be?’ We thanked him, but declined the offer. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘but the offer’s still on the table. Let me know, eh?’ We promised we would. Ten minutes later he was asking again.
‘Still a no on that beer, eh?’ It was still a no, so he kept quiet on it. For about five minutes.
‘Boys! Are you sure you don’t want a beer?’ We were quite sure, thank you very much, we didn’t really drink that much so we were happy. He did ask us a couple more times, just for good measure, and we were actually surprised we weren’t having beer for breakfast. Instead he took us (who he had known a total of 10 hours) out for breakfast, parting ways with a ‘right on’ (apparently a Maritime ‘good on ya, mate’), and handing over to one of his friends, who took us to her lakeside cabin for an evening, where we were treated like absolute royalty, although it must be said that it seems every visitor to Canada is treated as absolute royalty. No sooner had we arrived was coffee and morning tea on the table, and as soon as these were done lunch was up. Immediately lunch was over she was down dragging out kayaks so we could go for a scenic paddle, then scooting back up to prepare dinner. Dinner done, it was off to collect wood for the lakeside fire, and then up to get supplies for preparing S’mores (a wonderful North American invention combining toasted marshmallows, melted chocolate, and biscuits – trust them to mix three fatty, sugary things together). The next day it all repeated: bumper breakfast, morning tea, and lunch. Any offers to help were spurned, any insistences of help were met with being assigned some kind of menial task, followed by copious amounts of praise for being so helpful. Either this woman was an angel, or having a red hot crack at martyrdom.

Being surrounded by such friendliness everywhere I went had the direct effect of heightening my already prominent cynicism (as demonstrated by the above comment), to the point that I went prowling for any chink in the armour of kindness. And, as happens to most people rabidly pursuing evidence of some crackpot hypothesis, last Saturday I thought I found one. I had been staying with a couple in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a port city on the Atlantic Ocean that I believe is a perfect setting for a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. It is also well-renowned for its lobsters, and to this end, my host mother, a strict vegan, decided to buy and cook lobsters for all five of us. Despite not being an economist, lobster fisherman, or vegan, I deducted that this was rather a big thing she was doing for us. I decided to probe her about it.
‘Well, y’know, lobster’s big here in Nova Scotia, eh, and I just thought it’d be fun to watch you guys struggle your way through ’em. Bit of entertainment for me, y’know?’

Gotcha. I had all the evidence I needed to denounce the friendly nature of Canadians as self-serving and indulgent. How dare they buy, and cook, us all lobster for dinner, if their motive was to enjoy themselves? Incensed, I was ready to launch a prosaic tirade. Until the next day, I spied the gift my host family had bought me. Hang on. They had bought me a gift for staying with them, sleeping in their spare bed, eating their food, for a week. After spending a week offering everything they could, instead of bidding me farewell and thanking heavens that they didn’t have to do any more, they just decided to keep giving. This time, most definitely not for any personal gain. My argument was shot. I had to retract my previous thought of launching a salvo into the stereotype of the USA’s northern neighbours, and instead write a blog about the wonderful hospitality we’ve experienced the past three weeks. Damn Canadians.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

New England and a Narrow Escape

A typical New England scene

I write, ye readers of mine blog, after one seven month in the Puritan Province of New England…actually to tell the truth, it was about a fortnight, and New England nowadays is most certainly not a province, or Puritan, and, sadly, New Englanders speak English similarly to most other North Americans, rather than the Crucible-esque language I had romantically been imagining. Still, this far Northeast outpost of the United States has a different atmosphere entirely from almost everywhere else we have visited thus far. To pinch a thought from Arthur Miller, the frontier spirit, which has hardly left the USA as a whole, is far more apparent in New England than anywhere else. Not in the big, brash, gun-totin’, don’t-you-dare-take-away-my-liberties style (although New Hampshire’s state motto is Live Free or Die) favoured in the South, and to an extent, the Midwest, but more in a fierce guarding of all things local and small production.

Our last stop was in Montpelier, Vermont, a stunning ‘city’ set in the Green Mountains, retaining all the charm of a French alpine town. The Capital of the state, all of eight thousand people live in the city, the smallest capital of a US State by a large margin. These clever cookies have come up with a wonderful idea for the commercial outlets of the city, an idea that would never float in most of the USA, but something which encapsulates the New England frontier spirit quite neatly: no chains, franchises, or national companies are allowed in the city limits. Our Detroit born-and-raised manager was quite intrigued by this concept, but I liked it (and have henceforth been referred to as ‘hippy’). Here’s why: For probably only the sixth time in the past five months, I found a city with a thriving central area: Ann Arbor (Michigan), Chicago, New Orleans, Raleigh (North Carolina), Washington, and New York are the big exceptions, but all of these are large cities, generally supported by sizeable student and yuppie populations. Small town USA, even suburban USA, is, for the most part, an amalgamation of square weatherboard houses, Big Box stores, chain fast food outlets, and strip malls. If you are walking from your car in the parking lot to the front door of your favourite shop, you’re going a long way. Instead, here in Montpelier, we found people walking aimlessly along the streets, cool cafes, bars and restaurants where people would go to try unique food, good local produce, and maybe hear a local band. It contributed to a sense of community I hadn’t really found in many other places. Certainly, the majority of Americans are extremely friendly, welcoming, and hospitable, but you wouldn’t necessarily have people smile and say hello on the street (in some places, you’re lucky to even find people on the street), and you most definitely wouldn’t find people stopping for you at pedestrian crossings. It made me happy.

Another interesting trait I have found, again in all of the USA, but most obviously in New England, is an infatuation with one’s heritage. At a dinner party held for us in Amherst, Massachusetts, I at least six times had a conversation with guests that went something like this:
Guest: So where are you from?
Me: Australia.
Guest: Okay, but where is your family from?
Me: Australia.
Guest. I see. What’s your surname?
Me: McDonald.
Guest: Wow! With a name like Patrick McDonald, you must be Irish or Scottish!
Me: Well, I’ve never been to Ireland or Scotland…
Guest: Buy your family must be from there?
Me: Well, my ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland, but that was in the early 19th Century…
Guest: So you’re Irish! Me too!

Huh? Basically this type of conversation ends with the guest, having received the answer they wanted in the most roundabout way, getting excited about the fact that we are, in some way, related. I guess some way of feeling connected. Another way in which this manifests itself goes a little like this:
Guest: Do you speak any languages other than English?
Me: Yeah, I speak Italian.
Guest: Really? I’m Italian!
Me: Really? Cool! Where were you born?
Guest: Brooklyn.
Me: Uh huh. Doesn’t that make you American?
Guest: Well, I’m an American citizen, but I come from an Italian family.
Me: I see. Where were your parents born?
Guest: Brooklyn.
Me: Ever been to Italy?
Guest: No.
Me: Do you speak Italian?
Guest: No.
Me: Would you ever move to Italy?
Guest: Hell no!

And on it goes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for pride in one’s heritage, but claiming you’re something when you’ve never left the Northeast USA strikes me as just a little bit rich.

Today, we left the aforementioned Northeast United States for that huge country of ice, moose and maple trees: Canada. The whole getting across the border thing was supposed to be easy: Flash our passports, tell them where we’re going, smile a bit, enjoy your stay, try the maple syrup. Of course, things never quite go as imagined, and we were met with a touch of suspicion at the border. The immigration officer at the car booth, while friendly enough, immediately referred us inside, where Philippe, a most conscientious immigration official, perused our passports, demanded more paperwork to prove that we are singers, and not in fact some plant by the United States Government attempting to annexe Canada as the 51st state, then emailed the big wig all the way in Michigan to receive said paperwork, leaving us waiting for about two hours, at which point he politely demanded we leave Canada and return when either we printed the correct documents, or he received them via email. We were this close to being angry at Philippe, but he had such a cool French-Canadian accent, and he was trying so hard to be mean, but he just couldn’t manage it. Still, we had to go. We had actually been evicted from Canada, even if it was from a smiling bloke barely old enough to dress himself.

Having taken the most auspicious title of Canadian deportees, we trudged back, tails squarely between our legs. Our new worry was that the US wouldn’t let us in either. We would be stuck in the No Man’s Land between Canada and the USA, nowhere to go, nothing to help us get back from one to the other. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Quite unexpectedly, we were welcomed back like the prodigal son. Even so, for those of you who haven’t been deported before, it really is quite a sobering experience. As such, we headed to McDonald’s, that great American institution, to drown our sorrows (two of us are underage in the US), until finally we got the call-up to head back. Philippe made us wait another hour, but, finally, we were allowed in to the Promised Land. I was really beginning to like him.

I should what?

So after the biggest travel-related ordeal since Boony’s Beers, we are in Quebec, Canada. Any mug who tells you Canada is just like the USA has obviously never been to Quebec. For a start, the majority speak French, all the road signs, advertisements and most media outlets are French, and at times you could well be in France. Québécoise are extremely proud of their French heritage, too. Their provincial motto is Je me souviens, which I have loosely translated to mean ‘You’ll never get us to speak English, basterds!’, and their stop signs say arrêt. Even the French use stop. All this contributes to Quebec being uniquely cool in my opinion, but really, its biggest drawcard is Montreal. Beautiful, buzzing, cosmopolitan Montreal. Save for the prevalence of French, it really wouldn’t be too difficult for me to forget I’m in Montreal and think that I am, in fact, back in Melbourne. High praise for a city indeed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

‘United’ States of America? A New York Experience.

Southern Louisiana to New York City - are we in the same country?

As I was walking the streets of Manhattan last weekend, I had a revelation (I know it’s slightly self-indulgent and clichéd to start with that, but I just couldn’t help myself). I had been told from the moment I was accepted into S.O.U.L. that the USA is an extremely diverse country, with different landscapes, people, motivations, attitudes and accents just a few miles (or to use that evil metric system, kilometres) from each other, yet for a long time I just didn’t recognise it. Certainly, I noticed the scenery and conditions change from the depressing, flat, steamy cropland and wetlands of the Deep South, to the tawdry faux-tropicana of Florida’s Gulf Coast, then the awe-inspiring hills and mountains of the Carolinas and the Northeast, to the urban jungle that is New York. It was also fairly obvious to hear the accents change from the lazy, ‘y’all’-riddled drawl of Mississippi and Louisiana, to the obnoxious New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania dialect. But really that’s all fairly facile, taken on appearance stuff that a six-year-old could notice. The cultural change is much more subtle, and far more interesting.

The reason it took until a mild spring evening in Midtown Manhattan, the trees in full bloom, the streets packed with people, (self-indulgent again, but trust me, once you’ve been to New York, it’s hard not to be) is quite simple. New York City, Manhattan in particular, is capitalism personified. In its opulent Art Deco highrises, glitzy shopping strips, myriad limousines, flashing billboards and neon lights, you see the products of capitalist successes, and just what money can buy. A prime example of this is Donald Trump’s tower. Everything in it carries his name and/or trademark quiff somewhere – from the Trumpstraunt, to Donald’s Suites (just as an aside, every Democrat in the US is currently despairing over the Trumpiantor’s decision not to run for President. Because let’s face it, if he had won the nomination, Obama was a sure thing. Nobody was going to vote for a bloke whose defining feature is his ability to shout ‘You’re fired!’ at some poor hapless five-minutes-of-famer without being laughed at for his ranga combover and equally red face). Yet at the same time, you are assaulted by capitalism’s pitfalls – the thousands of homeless, the rent and property prices so high everyone is forced out except wealthy executives and spoilt yuppies.

It’s not that Southerners aren’t fans of capitalism, quite the opposite in fact. If you even suggested something like universal healthcare in some areas of the South, you’ll probably return without your head. No, many people from the South just seem to be opposed to people doing well out of capitalism. What they don’t realise is that under the tenets of capitalism, or at least the laissez-faire style of it that is favoured by so many Americans, that’s what happens. You are supposed to make as much money as you damn well can. Charlie Sheen would call it ‘winning’. New York is a prime example of how capitalism is supposed to work – reward those who do well and screw everyone else. That, in my experience, wasn’t the case in much of the South. Their attitude was that they should have all the benefits of free market competition, like cheap stuff at Wal-Mart (made in China, mind you), but they shouldn’t have to be padding the cheques of those grubby New York execs, because they just don’t know how hard honest Americans have to work, gosh darn it. That in fact brings me to my next observation: New York is a hotbed of political and social liberalism. Most New Yorkers would probably favour wealth equalisation, in the form of sliding-scale taxation, free healthcare, and taxes on pollution, which are condemned by so many conservatives as socialism (I’d like to point out right now that I am not trying to make outlandish assumptions about the politics of the South. The bottom line is that most areas of the South are staunchly Republican, the party which, since Obama has been elected, has had electoral success in branding him and his backers ‘socialist’ for trying to implement policies such as Obamacare. On the other hand, in last year’s drubbing of the Democrats both federally and locally, New York still returned Democratic senators, House representatives, and a governor, with resounding margins). Capital punishment is not practised there, legalised abortion and same-sex unions are, and there is a genuine feeling of connection with your fellow man that I feel is missing in so many parts of this country – something which I have absolutely no doubt is directly related to the fact that New Yorkers use their cars so much less than anyone else in the USA.

There are also no taboos in New York – we went to a comedy show one Saturday night where for the most part we were subjected to racial profiling, lewd sex stories, and anecdotes of alcoholism and cocaine addictions that, if mentioned in many other places, would leave you with an orange jumpsuit and a one-way ticket to the state penitentiary. And although much of the show left me squirming and my sheltered Australian conscience seriously confronted, it would seem that this unfettered style of interaction works far better than the staid, cautious way of approaching issues of race favoured by many other states. When we were in Alabama and Mississippi, and to a lesser extent, Louisiana, there were definite ‘black’, ‘white’, and ‘Hispanic’ neighbourhoods and schools. In Michigan, it was ‘white’ schools and ‘Arab’ schools. I was even told by one family that they were concerned at the level of black students in their school, as they didn’t want the academic performance at their school to drop, as, according to them, the non-white schools in their district were the equivalent to third world. No questioning why, no show of dismay, just a statement of fact. Whilst there are still some signs of segregation in New York, it is far less than the signs that integration is alive and working. The schools we went to were ethnically diverse, people were friends because they liked each other, and we actually saw families of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds – something which was notably missing in many areas we visited, where family groups were far more likely to be quite homogenous. The Big Apple is indeed a world apart from parts of its own country in so many ways. Of course, to be fair, the Big Apple is a world apart from, well, just about anywhere.

I thought I might finish with a cute little anecdote related to everyone’s favourite whipping boy – mass media. New York is the undisputed home of the Western media – the headquarters of most national networks are there, and some international – News Corporation immediately springs to mind. Aussie Rupert has called NYC home since the 70s. They can keep him. However, it would seem that the New York doesn’t have quite the power over national media the world thinks it does. Way back in early February, when Australia and South America were being ravaged by floods, fires and mudslides, the northern half of the US, Canada, and Europe were grappling with the heaviest snow storms since the release of Ice Age, and Congress were coming to terms with the new reality of a Democratic administration and Senate, and a Republican House, we were in Alabama. And what was the headline news in Alabama? A dead tree. No joke. Apparently it was significant tree to one of the universities there, and there was talk that an alumnus of its major competitor had deliberately killed it. In the words of Ron Weasley (note in the following quote, ‘she’ refers to the Alabama media): ‘She has got to get her priorities right.’

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Weather and Weddings

Storm damage (left) and what we think caused it (right)           

 During our six-month tour, our main method of travel is a white Ford Transit – think the Popemobile without the glassed-in standing box. Affectionately known as the ‘S.O.U.L. Train’ (a name which never fails to spur giggling fits from anyone born between 1955 and 1991), it would in fact be more comfortable if we were able to travel in it a la His Holiness, standing up and waving to the over-70s in their RVs with Quebec license plates as we pass them, instead of the conventional sitting down position undertaken by most travellers. As it stands (pardon the pun), getting in and out of the van, and in fact even moving about once in, involves a Cirque du Soleil-esque contortionist sequence, dodging pillows, laptops, and gigantic Red Bull cans. Making the experience all the more difficult is the absolute silence and poignance required to ensure anyone who can push through the pain and stiffness enough to actually sleep is not disturbed, and the single-minded concentration that is needed to ensure the gas you’ve been holding in for the past two and a half hours doesn’t escape prematurely. You may scoff at this, but with all the processed, fattening American food we are eating, flatulence is a real issue, and the last thing we need is to turn our five cubic metre space into a Dutch Oven.

            It may seem from my opening remarks that we really despise the S.O.U.L. Train, but this actually couldn’t be further from the truth. We love the thing. When you’re staying in a different place on average every three nights, with your suitcase, laptop, and fellow singers the only other constants in your life, it becomes something of a refuge, a place where you can actually feel some sort of familiarity. Plus, there’s no better team building exercise than sitting squashed in a van for five hours or more, a Canadian sprawled all over you, with a Colombian fro managing to touch every sensitive part of your face with just five strands of hair. It is also the focal point of some of the most exciting experiences we’ve had for the past couple of months: the weather. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I am certain that our innocuous-looking Ford Transit is in fact a magnet for torrential rain, thunderstorms, and tornadoes. It all started on the last weekend in February, when we decided to drive from New Orleans to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to visit friends we had made a few weeks earlier. It was somewhat overcast as we began to head out of the city, but as soon as we drew away from the city, the heavens opened like you could never imagine. While we were on a bridge. With roadworks. Over what seemed like an ocean-sized lake. Kayla, the pocket-sized Canadian, was at the helm, and despite her protestations that she kept calm, her hands had to be wrenched off the wheel at the end of the trip, and for most of the two hour journey, she didn’t blink or speak, save for muttering expletives under her breath (or at full volume every time a truck passed). However, we made it safely to Hattiesburg, and were happy that we had weathered what would, of course, be the worst storm we would experience for the remainder of the trip. How wrong we were.

            Although we weren’t to have another onset of bad weather for about a month after our New Orleans/Hattiesburg experience, when it returned, it came back with a vengeance. And it still hasn’t left. It all started during our week in Clermont, Florida, just near Disney World. One morning, we emerged from our houses to dark skies. No real worry. Then, at about lunchtime, the tornado ‘watch’ was announced – meaning there would be wind and rain, and that a tornado could develop, but it wasn’t likely. The watch, however, was quickly upgraded to a ‘warning’, the legal definition of which is ‘Storm’s a’comin’, Uncle Henry’. Hatches were battened down, windows were moved away from, and an initially sedate performance for a group of third graders became a sea of kids screaming, crying, and burrowing under desks as though the Second Cold War had just begun. The storm ultimately passed without event, however it was the first tornado warning the area had had in more than a decade. Our hosts joked that we had brought the weather with us. We laughed politely, secretly telling them to learn some better jokes. The next day the storms were back, this time whist we were enjoying the Epcot Centre at Disney World. We noticed the sky darkening and the wind picking up, but this to us just meant no queues of fair-weather Floridians, and thus more rides and attractions. What we didn’t realise was that whilst we were marveling at the Sound, Sight, and Smell Science Railway, a twister passed through the park, rendering it more or less empty. We had a blast in the eerily quiet park, and for a few days, tornadoes were our friend. Amazing how quickly a friend can become an enemy though, as after two more tornado warnings in less than a week, one of which part of a system containing tennis-ball sized hail which resulted in our dear van’s windscreen shattering, not to mention a dint-riddled bonnet (the ‘hood’ to any Americans reading this). Now it was at the point where we were fairly paranoid that we (or at least the van) were the cause of the poor weather, although given none of us had ever seen anything bigger than the willy-willys that float around country Victoria now and again, there was some slight excitement that we might see a real life tornado.

            The height of our stormy chapter came at the end of April, in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Set in rolling, forested hills in the ‘Upland South’, these leafy, picturesque, and surprisingly cosmopolitan cities are some of the USA’s best-kept secrets. They had also, up until our arrival, not had serious tornadoes since the late 1970s. Enter S.O.U.L. 2011 and their trusty weather magnet. Within 24 hours of our arrival, 29 tornadoes of varying strength and destruction had ripped through the region, causing the deaths of an estimated 24 people, including the tragic deaths of three young brothers trapped in a caravan. Closer to home, the damage was mercifully only material, with one of our host homes having two trees crash through its roof whist its occupants were out. Driving through the area later that evening, it was eerie to see so many traffic lights out, trees felled, and power lines strewn across the road – vibrant Raleigh had become a war zone in the space of hours. It really is indescribable. Still, it didn’t stop the locals from hitting the spots that hadn’t been damaged, and given that Sergio was without power, we thought we might join them for a few hours. Arriving at a sushi restaurant/bar as a starting point, Sergio’s unmissable hair immediately became an asset – as he was walking out of the loo, he was approached by a gentleman who had quite obviously been indulging for quite a while. As the conversation became more animated, we thought we had best saunter over to inspect the hubbub. Saunter we did, and what we found was that our inebriated friend had taken a shine to the fro, and wished for us to join his entourage – he would pay all our expenses at every place we went to. Calculating the risks versus reward, we came to the conclusion that our trusty van was about twenty steps away, and we had an Iraq veteran as a manager – why not test it out. We could always cut and run. It turned out to be the best decision of the night – it turned out the bloke had be ‘recruiting’ all night, and had eight previous strangers with him – all of us laughing and sharing stories within ten minutes. He did indeed pick up the tab – although for two underagers, the most entertainment we could derive from that was to watch the others slamming down beer, followed by mixers and jager bombs whist politely sipping Coke. Still, it was a wonderful night, and having been treated by celebrities by people who weren’t still at elementary school, we went home feeling smugly happy. At least our stormy experiences ultimately reaped some entertaining and unexpected results.
I thought I would finish off by mentioning the Royal Wedding – the other topic of choice of the media before the bin Laden firestorm (and I’m not touching that one with a 10 metre cattle-prodder). The coverage of the two actually got to such a saturation point that on CNN last weekend, the Saturday anchor switched from one to the other with this segue:
                        ‘Speaking of tornadoes, a whirlwind of romance erupted in London earlier this morning…
You get the picture – insensitive and unimaginative. Mass media at its most typical. Irrespective of the terrible linkage of the two events, the American obsession over the nuptials of Wills and Kate still amazes me. For a country so fiercely proud of their independence, these guys sure love a royal party, even if it is just to gawk at the get-ups of the bride, groom, and guests. One woman with whom I dicussed the wedding was extremely eloquent in her descriptions of the many images we were bombarded with here: Kate’s dress (and the bride herself): ‘How pretty! In an English sort of way’. On the hats worn by most women in attendance (save for that naughty Samantha Cameron): ‘Oh! How British!’ On the ceremony itself: ‘So Anglican!’ And on it went – I got the feeling she was the kind of woman who gives a white room a beige feature wall so she can have some contrast. Whilst I was not personally swept up in wedding fever, it did give me some great fodder for our presentations: I was able to rib audiences about their excitement over a wedding of two people who are, in reality, insignificant to Americans. To counter this, I usually suggest, why doesn’t the USA reconsider becoming a Commonwealth Realm? Big mistake. I am generally met with scowls, frantic head-shaking, and the occasional boo. As a result of these adverse reactions, I have come up with a far better solution. Why doesn’t William run for US President? I have no doubt a British Royal running for US President would go down extremely well – just ask Donald Trump. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Weird Old Dears and World of Disney

Two common habitats in Florida - the Gated Community, and the Cinderella Castle. She lives there. Honestly.

The great State of Florida is nothing if not an enigma. It is the home of Walt Disney World, purportedly the place ‘Where Dreams are Made’ but also Jeb Bush, the Governor who makes his brother Dubya look like a liberal. It has cities like Miami, where Spanish speakers are the majority, but also counties where immigration is seen as the newest form of evil. However, the most stark contrast can be seen in the fact that it has beautiful, warm, sunny beaches, often populated by beautiful, sunkissed people, and yet Florida’s most lucrative industry is Aged Care. For the summer months at least. A few days ago, whilst undertaking a seven-hour commute from Northern Florida to South Carolina, we bore witness to an interesting phenomenon: the Great Migration. No, not birds. Geriatrics. With the cold northern winter over, this migratory species began its long journey back up to the less oppressive summers of their home states. At a rest stop just over the Georgia state line, we were literally fighting our way through swathes of campervans and sedans with New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Ontario and Quebec numberplates, populated by over-70s who felt it perfectly acceptable to putt along 15 miles under the limit, enjoying the scenery, and using the basins of the public toilet as a place to strike up a conversation with the next person, leaving a line of disgruntled oldies behind them, who then turn to do that which the elderly do best: complain. What resulted on our part was a journey almost an hour longer that necessary, filled with sudden braking, swerving, and me shouting ‘I swear, if I see another slow moving Quebec numberplate I’m not going to Montreal!’ and the final decision that old people are not people, but in fact highly developed migratory birds. Fun times.

Of course, I am generalising horribly about the pre-Baby Boomer American populace. It is only a certain demographic, and probably a small one, that exhibit these traits I am describing. Let us, for this Attenborough-esque dissertation on this particular type of senior, refer to them as the ‘migrators’, as opposed to the ‘stay-putters’, and assume they account for about ten percent of the over 65 population of the US. Important to note is that they can be distinguished when they are in the stagnant point of their yearly cycle through one other common trait they share: the Gated Community. The idea behind this nifty little invention that now covers approximately 48% of Florida’s land area (by my own calculations) is that you put yourself behind a guarded gate, in a ‘home’ a fly would struggle to turn around in, that looks just like the other few hundred homes in the complex, and you do this for just one reason: security. So that those damned young whippersnappers don’t roar around looting and rioting and thieving and doing all those things that all young people do. As a matter of fact, many of these communities market themselves as such: Perico Bay is a ‘Deed Inspection Community’ – whatever that means. Pine Oaks is a ‘Police Check Community’. Lovely. And, of course, not at all judgmental. Worse than this, though, is when these places start extending themselves beyond their gated barriers. At a park not so long ago, where we stopped to eat lunch, we were shooed away as it was in fact property of the gated community next door, and to be used only for the pleasure and enjoyment of the upstanding residents of the community, to ensure no sort of immoral or illicit activity occurs which might dampen the allure of the recreational facility of the residents. The day I have to pay for a public park is the day I know I’m completely senile.

There is one Gated Community in Florida which I was able to stomach – Walt Disney World. It may seem to be over-simplifying what is the world’s largest theme park/resort, but that’s really all Disney World is – a 30 000 acre, fenced in, heavily orchestrated, escape from reality Gated Community where you can eat, sleep, be entertained, and even work, without ever having to venture out into the world outside its gates and face up to the realities of human society. Having said that, not every Gated Community has four theme parks, 23 resorts, two water parks, its very own Cirque du Soleil, and an integrated train-monorail-ferry-bus public transport system that puts most major American cities to shame, so perhaps Walt can claim one-up on good ol’ Perico Bay. Although Perico Bay did have a hydrotherapy pool and a tennis court. What really defines Disney World, though, is the surreal feeling that it could all be, well, real. You can walk through the international villages at the Epcot Centre and legitimately feel as though you’ve wandered from the US into Canada, England, France, Japan, China, Mexico, and the Middle East – all within a few steps. Animal Kingdom actually takes you on a safari through Africa, or to the Triassic era on treks with dinosaurs, or even through the Himalayas on a hunt for the Yeti – culminating, of course, with a 45-minute wait (if you’re lucky) to board a roller-coaster that finally brings you face-to-face with the beast himself. Hollywood Studios recreates, with startling believability, the ‘main streets’ of well-known American cities. San Francisco and New York both look as though they stretch on for miles, until you realise you are being bamboozled by some brilliant perspective art. And there’s a haunted hotel elevator, a live-action stunt filming, and the Muppets and Toy Story in 3D to boot. Then there’s Magic Kingdom. Home of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Snow White…the list could go on forever.

Whilst any of you who have never been to Disney World may be pooh-poohing my excitement, I am now quite convinced all that is true – Disney World just has that effect on you. Partly this is due to its size – it would be quite possible to spend a year there and not see it all – for the two days we were there, we were practically at a canter all the time, and still saw maybe one percent of the place, leading us to the conclusion that the rest of it must be where Mickey and his mates kick up their heels at wild parties, or responsibly raise families, depending on what kind of personal life you think Disney characters lead. Of course, that is how Walt wants it (or wanted. I’m not quite sure whether or not the man is dead, alive, or in some kind of strange frozen suspended animation state). He deliberately created back-door tunnels and delivery chutes so guests would just assume that every item of food and merchandise appears magically, and not have to see the army of trucks and minimum-wage grunts that keep this obnoxiously incredible dream factory running smoothly – after all, who sees FedEx trucks in their dreams? I must admit, however, that whole ‘Where Dreams are Made’ (or as Kayla more aptly put it, ‘manufactured’) slogan unnerves me somewhat, because having visited the place, and even having given them my fingerprint to gain access, there is a small part of my brain that believes I have been assigned a couple of chipmunks who now sit in the bowels of Disney’s underground city and each night insert an appropriate dream into my head. Still, that’s just Florida – it doesn’t matter how fake its glamour is, how locked in its Gated Communities are, or how oily its Gulf beaches become, you still wind up dreaming about it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Footy Clothes, French Creole, and Florida’s Charms

Southern Louisiana in two images - Alligators and footy shorts

One of my tasks before arriving in the US was to find a suitable ‘traditional costume’ should a concert host request that we wear something native to our home countries. For me, this proved a little difficult. I wasn’t about to go and find an Aboriginal outfit, because I’m not Aboriginal myself, and, let’s face it, most traditional garb for Indigenous nations, especially from the desert, is fairly revealing. So for the first few months of the trip, I wore a cobbled-together ‘jackaroo’ costume, which was not particularly inspiring, although it did give me a platform from which I could launch a scintillating ‘the male version is a jackaroo, the female version is a jillaroo, and when you put them together you get a jack-and-jill-went-up-the-hillaroo’ joke. Eventually, however, I got a bit sick of wearing a flanno, jeans and an akubra whilst the others were resplendent in bright, colourful, unique costumes. To counteract this, I remembered that I had brought footy clothes with me, just in case the opportunity arose that I could wear them, and that before I arrived here, I remember watching Ellen Degeneres interviewing one of the Modern Family actors having a good old chinwag about how Australian men have a strange habit of wearing ridiculously short shorts. Ahah, I thought. Not only a new, exciting costume, but some sort of story to go with it.

            My first outing of my new costume was at a presentation at a municipal library in Houma, Louisiana, down on the bayou in Cajun Country. What a wonderful place to first wear my Cats footy jumper I bought when I was twelve, dazzlingly maroon shorts, and holey green and white footy socks that reach above my knees. Strangely, I was actually a little self-conscious before the show began, hiding behind a strategically placed desk as the audience walked in. Eventually, however, I had to show myself for the start of the performance, and throughout our first few songs there was constant mutterings from the audience, in particular a group of ‘mature’ women sitting in the front row. Finally it came time for me to speak to the audience (I’m usually last because English is my native language – Americans love suspense and surprises), and so I could explain the cute little getup. I began fairly conventionally, explaining the Ellen Degeneres story, the popularity of Aussie Rules, and the origin of each of the separate pieces. Then I got ahead of myself. I was explaining that whilst the shorts may have seemed quite revealing to American eyes, my ‘modern’ wearing of them had them a bit longer than they would have been twenty years ago. ‘For example’, I went on, ‘For all the years my father played footy, he wore his shorts like this’, hoisting up the shorts to a height not seen since Robert DiPierdomenico graced the Glenferrie Oval, flashing my bright green underwear to all who were willing to see the show (at least I had the foresight to ensure my shorts and underwear were strikingly complementary. Imagine if my jocks were red. It would be like watching an episode of the Tellitubbies wearing rose-coloured glasses. Instead, it was just like watching an episode of the Tellitubbies normally). The aforementioned ladies’ club provided the best spectrum of  reactions. Of the four, one laughed, one couldn’t turn her face quickly enough, one gave a rather surreptitiously sultry thanks-for-the-view glance, whist the fourth one almost fainted (I’m still deciding if it was from excitement or shock. Maybe both). At least the women from Houma won’t be forgetting the day that the Australian came to visit for a while.

            Southern Louisiana wasn’t entirely made up of middle-aged and elderly women showing adverse reactions to the sight of Australian legs. We were lucky enough to experience a swamp tour where we were exposed to the nuances, joys, and sometimes confusions of the Louisiana Creole culture. The launch pad for the boat trip was at a Creole family’s house and store, filled with exotic animals such as snakes, gators and snapping turtles, and decorated so tackily it put Kath Day-Knight’s pineapple and chopstick-inspired table setting to shame. As we were wandering through the property, our guide stopped, pulled a baby alligator out of a bucket and brandished it around, saying ‘Heda coodie, innie?’ Pardon? Our host mother (a Louisiana native) translated: ‘He’s a cutie, isn’t he?’ Well, if you insist. A little later: ‘Dem snappin turda, he gonna bide you finga clean off you puddit dere!’ Apparently the snapping turtle likes the taste of human fingers. Soon afterward, we boarded a boat for the tour of the bayou and swamp. Our excitable guide was soon regaling us with all the sights around ‘Dere! Dat gator biiig boy!’ Sure enough, there was a three-metre alligator just a few metres from our boat. The swamp was filled with all manner of wildlife, trees, and houseboats decked out in Confederate flags, often with stickers proclaiming ‘if this flag offends you, you need a history lesson’. Personally, I feel that a ‘if you need a tacky sticker to justify displaying this flag, you probably shouldn’t display it’ sticker would have fitted the bill better, but Southern Louisiana plays by its own rules. Our Creole-speaking guide pedalled away on his rusty pushbike the moment he had us off the boat. This untouched piece of a bygone era, filled with drawbridges, over-vegetated gardens, people to whom neither English nor French was a first language, and where fried chicken and crawfish jambalaya is the epitome of health food, may not be the first place on a list of where to holiday, or even the top ten, but it sure was fun. And that little gator was a coodie too.

            Last week we left Lousiana after a month’s stay (it almost feels like home now) for the state of Florida. Americans call this place ‘God’s waiting room’, and immediately upon arrival it was easy to see why – the average age of Florida residents must be at least 60, and retirement complexes appear on almost every street in its cities and towns. Still, there is something of an idyllic feeling to the state – warm weather, palm trees, and complex waterway networks. My first host here was a dentist quite obviously going through a mid-life crisis – he lives in a treehouse ‘inspired’ home on the water, with a speedboat parked out the back, which he used to transport us to a waterfront bar for an evening of live music and relaxing. A little ostentatious, but then again, if I were a single, middle-aged dentist, I might live the same way too. Apart from that, Florida has been all singing, with a couple of hours at the beach (just enough to get sunburnt), although I’ve decided I don’t much like the beach here – it’s not very far from last year’s oil spill, and the beach reminds me too much of home. Still, we have complimentary passes to Disney World next week, so Florida still has an opportunity to show me it’s more than old people, playboy dentists, and oil infested beaches. Watch this space.

            Given the recent occurrence of St Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d finish with this.

Paddy was the first man in his village to own a motorbike, and for its maiden voyage, he asked his best mate Murphy along for a ride. Murphy gladly accepted, but after a few kilometres he shouted ‘Stop! Stop!’
‘What’s the matter?’ Paddy enquired
‘It’s too cold! I can’t take it!’ Murphy replied.
Thinking on his feet, Paddy said, ‘Well why don’t you take off your jacket, put it on backwards, and button it up that way – you’ll be more protected from the wind and it won’t be so cold!’

            Thinking this was a wonderful idea, Murphy did exactly that, and Paddy biked on happily for quite a while before turning around to see how Murphy was getting on – he was gone. Frantically, Paddy turned back, to find Murphy sitting on the road five kilometres away, surrounded by a group of farmers. ‘Oh thank God I’ve found him!’ Paddy cried. ‘Is the poor man okay?’
‘Well,’ replied one of the farmers, ‘He was fine when we got here. But then we turned his head around the right way, and he hasn’t spoken a word since!’

Happy St Patrick's Day!