On America


Being a too-short series of thoughts on and records of my recent too-short trip.


My border guard teased me as entered the county; I’d spent twenty minutes giggling at the introductory video blazing over the queue (bald eagles, panoramas of the statue of liberty, stern instructions on how assiduous border guards are):

– What’s the purpose of your visit?
– Oh, um . . . a visit! I’m visiting my er girlfriend’s family.
– Uh-huh? Met them before? Place the fingers of your right hand on the scanner.
– Er, half of them. Now I’m seeing the other half. Her father.
– Thumb. That means you got to get married now. Left hand.
– Er . . . well . . . !
– Thumb. *glances at customs form* I see you brought gifts. Yup, it’s all over for you. Good luck with that.

The whole conversation took place while he was messaging a friend on his iPhone.


I took a piss on American soil. Actually, in an American toilet. I had forgotten how huge they were. It had a big, splashy bowl, and an infrared automatic flush. The urinals had little green barriers between them to protect me from accidentally seeing another man’s penis. I spent much of my trip remarking on how much bigger everything in America is than everything in Britain: toilets, houses, meal portions, gestures of love. I remarked on the same thing returning from Russia. (I have a similar dysfunctional romance with both countries: I am a child of the Cold War.) It might in fact be the case that everything in Blighty is just really small.


The house was surrounded my trees. I’d never really realised how bare and treeless my home, Orkney, is, or how extensively my whole country has been potentially irreversibly deforested. In Raleigh, where I stayed, the land is covered with new growth pine forest – fragrant, airy woods which rapidly reclaimed abandoned farms, because here the trees are strong enough to do that. I’d never understood why people love, hug trees. Now I do. They’re beautiful. And full of birds. The birds I know are sea birds: squawking, aggressive, exciting, social. These birds – I’m seeing cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, chickadees for the first time – are colourful, cheerful, tuneful. The air is thick with song and heat. The American robin is a bigger, redder bird than what we call a robin.


There is so much money around. The houses are embarrassingly ostentatious. Real mansions, flaunting. In Britain the noise of building these would be drowned out by the sound of tutting. And everyone seems to want acres of yard – including the urban businesses. The sprawl is like nothing else. Urban living ought to be the most ecological mode of life, when done compactly, mindfully. (Why do the hippies in Asheville oppose every skyscraper?) But there’s a parking lot outside every diner along the huge, huge roads. Expensive, unwalkable suburbs take bites out of the forest; more trees are cut down to build greenways for joggers and dog-walkers. Ker-ching. Ker-ching.


Those huge roads have few markings – the paths for cars are not clearly defined. But every street name is well-labelled.


I love the American concept of service: friendly, conversational, attentive, human. At first I thought it was because it seemed so genuine. But then, most of these waitresses survive on tips. Then again, is British sullenness and resentment any more truthful or self-determined?


Everything I ate seemed delicious, from the bottomless coffee and cheese-laden hash-browns at Waffle House to the hyper-vegan biscuits, greens and gravy at Rosetta’s Kitchen, Asheville. Serving sizes were everywhere enormous, of course. I get Southern cooking now, and by God I spent a portion of every day with the Itis. You can tell you’ve been fed good when you roll over and go to sleep.


Britain just does not understand sushi.


I and all around me seemed to drink only diuretics: coffee in the morning (to wake you up), soda in the afternoon (to keep you going), beer at night (to chill you out). I pissed all day long. Water existed as a medium for carrying caffeine, sugar and alcohol through my body.


Beer was a surprise. The whole culture of micro-brewing in North Carolina, especially around Asheville, produces astonishing work; I think this might be the best beer area outside of Bavaria. And here was me thinking that America produced nothing but trash brew. How tragic that that’s all it exports. Interesting, though, that all the beers were parasitic on European forms: they were American interpretations, rather than American inventions. What would an American original taste like?


Asheville: the town when you can genuinely give the direction turn left at the drum circle. Streets of shops selling nothing in particular: ethnic drapes, new age books, copied statuary. A smell of patchouli everywhere. But despite the bullshit, I felt that spark of wanting to stay. There was a genuine protest culture. An exciting arts scene. An ethic to be part of. And I started to wonder whether the American counterculture wasn’t a little bit further on in its projects, in its realisations of alternative social forms, than its British counterpart – or whether our dirty, neurotic, haphazard anarchism wasn’t a little more truthful, if less hopeful.


The mountains were blue-grey and forest-covered; this horizon seemed like the three-layered background of a side-scrolling platformer. We went up into those mountains. There were back porches. I saw the site of Black Mountain College, a spiritual home. I discovered what a mountain dulcimer looks like, and resolved to learn it. Little communities of aging hippies were interspersed with enclaves of mountain people and musicians. Appalachia. My kitsch memory and fantasy of its music, its accent, its culture started to intersect with its lived reality. The two seemed indistinguishable; everything was proved, disproved. I felt that part of me was home – that same sense of cultural affinity that Americans who claim Scottish descent feel in the Highlands. But this was an imagined Appalachian ascent. Or, perhaps, what I feel everywhere in America: the sense that it is the home of every citizen of the world, the site of our fantasies, our cultural heritage, our imagined future. Our possibility.


Depression medication is everywhere advertised . And every advert is doubled in length by a terrifying sequence of warnings about how this shit might kill you, or make you kill yourself. Depression is real. Be frightened. Ask your doctor about.


Everything is advertised, all the time, everywhere. The public radio has to stop every five minutes for a sponsor list. Television programming is contrived especially to make adverts as intrusive and unavoidable and frequent as possible. Each museum room, exhibit, has a backer in large print.


To compare: print journalism here is vastly superior to the UK’s – more in depth, more wide ranging (if more disguising the difference between advertising and editorial); television journalism is a bottomless pit in the absence of a BBC corollary. If I listened to NPR and read USA Today, I’d get the impression of a well-informed nation, deeply-engaged with its multi-levelled political processes. If I watched Fox, I would despair, and despair.


This is a vast, complicated country. North Carolina, I was told, is comparable in size, population, and geographical distribution to Scotland – but everything seemed to be on a larger scale, or a small part of a great project. The scale of the local here is totally different to what I’m used to: local is a large town, or a state, and not a neighbourhood. I began to sense the psychological effects of federalism (and I liked them): this idea of the relationship between quasi-autonomous regions and vast, suspected overseers, one which echoes down to county level and up to the national. The play of shared values and mythical differences. The cosmopolitan chauvinism. The endless elections and Byzantine debates.


My message to America: build some fucking railways. Again. It’s ridiculous.


Why is it that, when travelling, everything we see must be refracted through the prism of home, defined as either a difference or an identity?


My partner’s grandmother lives where she grew up, and, in her 80s, meets up at a drug store to gossip with her high school friends twice a week. Her son, 50s, went to see the Moody Blues, and she said “I don unnerstan all this new stuff; it don soun like music t me.” The elderly are our memory, our brass mirror. Why does cross-generational conversation seem so rare but untreasured?


It is a triumph of contemporary life that something as extraordinary as air travel has been made to feel so dull.

And yet America’s city lights at 6am, from the air, were a mysterious language, were arcana, asbtract paintings. What is that glittering square? Who are the people in those counter-flowing arterial streams of white and red? What are the patches of darkness, and the points of light?

5 thoughts on “On America

  1. On beer: Europeans have been brewing beer in vast quantities for a very long time, and maybe by the time there were a significant number of beer-drinking Americans of European descent, they had already discovered most of the basic methods that worked well. Beer is like bread in many ways, and with bread you know that there are hundreds of different ways of making it, but do you really think you could come up with a way of making bread that was different enough to be called “original”?

    On trees: Trees are wonderful things, and it saddens me now to think of all of the family walks on Forestry Commission paths, where it was utterly still and silent because the trees there were the wrong kind, and grown too intensively to support any other forms of life. You should come on one of the Caledonian Forest volunteering trips at some point, because they are absolutely amazing.

  2. On Beer- there have been many attempts at ‘merican beer- pumpkin infused, hemp seed, but the above about bread recipes and beer rings true….many have tried but the old styles always win out.

    On railroads, many many americans have bawled and wrote and protested about the pitiful state of the trains here and it falls on deaf petro-biz-controlled ears. America has and will be run by petro interests and until they want trains and can control them….by gawd we will burn up every last drop of oil we can find….

  3. Regarding federalism, I think that varies by geography. New Englanders are much more “unionist” in their thinking (which is funny, because the North was the “Federal” side!).

    Redarding Fox news. It’s not depressing to watch. It’s depressing to see the statistics about how many people use it as their one and only source for information.

  4. The post was really interesting to read, thank you! I’ve had really negative thoughts about North-America for a long long time, but I think for this reason I should visit there and see it myself.

    Trees and forests. One of the things I missed a lot in Scotland. They are alive and they bring life around us.

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