Living the High Life

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Smalltown America is not a pretty sight. For the most part the towns are modern yet faded and characterless with minimal allure, unless of course you like spending time in Hicksville which boasts only two rusty gas pumps, a trailer park and the “World’s Largest Eggplant”. These places are better left alone and in any case can be well enough appreciated from the window of a Greyhound bus or Amtrak train as it sweeps (or more accurately trundles) between the major cities. And it is the major cities which demand to be seen and appreciated, especially those on the East Coast. On my first return to New York, I slept with the hotel window open so I could hear the car horns, the groups of drunken students and the shouts of the van drivers making their 3am delivery to the pizza place below the hotel. I was determined to see more. Starting in Boston this time, I found that many Americans, especially New Yorkers, seem to hate it, apparently because of some kind of baseball rivalry. However, I enjoyed the city and found it easy to walk around. The high concentration of colleges and universities also makes Boston a young, trendy student town, though by no means cheap. Just across the Charles River lies Cambridge, home of Harvard’s beautiful, sprawling campus – the oldest university in America. I spent a pleasant day there, out of the big city, fantasizing about studying there. I regretted not being able to meet more Bostonians when I was there, my youth hostel being full of other Brits. I did meet one though: an expunk- rocker called John, who drank tea with me and told me about his divorce and “Baby” (his ferret) who keeps him company. On my fourth day, I jumped on bus and jumped off four hours later in the middle of Manhattan. Manhattan is the centre of perhaps the most exciting city in the world. Sure NYC has its fair share of dirt, strange smells and crazy people: before I went there, I was under the impression that I must on no account make eye contact with anyone, use the subway or set foot Central Park. Ever. Once there, however, I realised that it was no more dangerous than London and as for crazy people, we’re all used that in Oxford. Even Harlem’s ok you visit it during daylight. But if you take the Staten Island ferry, don’t bother getting off at the other end. My friend and I made this mistake two years back and ended up having a drink with a couple of gangsters a bar complete with bullet hole riddled windows. In a strange way, I think sightseeing in NYC is rather a waste of the city. New York isn’t the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty; it’s the whole of Manhattan and the different districts with their individual character, smells and atmosphere. The best way to see the city is on foot; walking down the man-made ravines of 5th Avenue or Broadway is one spectacular experience. In Times Square, which where much of the excitement of Manhattan is concentrated, I had wonderful feeling of anonymity. Imagine a massive version of Piccadilly Circus, stretching out in every direction – so crowded and busy that even with a map, a compass and a GPS unit, you would still feel lost. Philadelphia, my next destination, was a shock after the twenty four hour madness of NYC. There were far fewer sketchy characters on the streets and it was calmer and more conservative city. Museums and shops close earlier (and are often closed on Mondays) and the stylish, bohemian character which permeates places like the Village in New York and Camden Town in London, is confined to few blocks on the mildly curious and trendy South Street. Here you can buy your obligatory Philly cheese steak and then spend the rest of the day regretting it. I found it appropriate to see Philadelphia after Boston because their dual roles in the events leading to American Independence. Unfortunately, though, many of the buildings which were in the Historic Area were pulled down before the Americans began to treasure and preserve anything historic. Among those demolished was Benjamin Franklin’s house, but the site now has an underground museum dedicated to this extraordinary printer, diplomat and inventor of, amongst other things, the lightning rod and bizarre instrument called the armonica, based on glasses filled with different amounts of water, sounding at different pitches. There is however, only so much city life I can take – I think the hours I spent in art galleries Boston one afternoon, including hour and a half just to find an exit from the Museum of Fine Arts, almost did me in. By the time I had seen as much of these cities as possible and absorbed culture until I was saturated, I needed small town America, where there’s nothing do but eat pancakes, drink Sam Adams beer and fight off the evangelical rednecks. Destination: Virginia.
ARCHIVE: 3rd Week TT 2003

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