An American Tale

This summer my daughter and I set out on a north eastern seaboard odyssey. We flew to New York where we stayed in hipster capital Williamsburg in Brooklyn (thanks to friends Fergus, Graciela and Olivia). This town is, as the cliché has it, full of thirty-somethings with peculiar facial hair (the men) and skinny girls dressed in vintage glad rags sitting outside coffee shops and bars posing as if their life depended on it. New York is a friendly place, not as wild and hectic as London, easy to get around and full of things to do. We ate ice-cream in Central Park, had our nails done in a Vietnamese salon and travelled on the subways unmolested. I was slightly alarmed at being offered a seat every time we boarded a train – unheard of in Europe. I wasn’t sure whether to be delighted or offended – do I look pregnant or ancient? Having got our bearings we hit the town and did all the usual touristy things: visited the museums. My daughter thought the natural history museum was disappointing – ‘not like the film at all’ – perhaps because there was no live Teddy Roosevelt to show us around? But loved MoMA, especially the conceptual art which generally leaves me cold and got a kick out of seeing the huge original Jackson Pollock’s which she has loved on postcards for years.

 

The Met is so huge and overwhelming we decided to do a deal and just do one area thoroughly so we chose ancient Egypt. Daughter had a rather worrying and ghoulish interest in the mummies. Poor old things, was this what they anticipated when they made their plans for eternal life? To be gawked at incessantly for time immemorial?  A less well known museum we visited was the New York Historical Society on Central Park West. This is a lovely quiet museum and as well as running lots of exhibitions and being packed with fascinating objects associated with the history of New York from its beginnings it has a lovely reading room and has a huge collection of manuscripts and books.

 

The deal was that if I hit the shops with her she would join me on a trip to the Brooklyn botanical gardens which had been highly recommended to me by my gardening pal Fiona Cummins. With this in mind we queued for Abercrombie and Fitch on 5th Avenue, did the dodgy basements and side streets in Chinatown looking for knock off designer goods and tat and bought most of the contents of Sephora between us.  Our first Sunday was spent taking a boat trip across the East River in the morning admiring Liberty, the Manhattan skyline and the bridges and the afternoon was spent in the beautiful and peaceful Botanical Gardens in Brooklyn (see more about this in another post).

 

After five exhausting and packed days we lugged our suitcases to Penn Station and headed for Virginia via New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. Baltimore’s outskirts live up to their reputation from The Wire – what a dump; full of crumbling buildings, graffiti and litter. At one point I could have sworn I was in ‘H’amsterdam’.

 

Virginia Beach has a reputation as the ‘Redneck Riviera’. It is on Chesapeake Bay and is home to a large NATO base and Naval Yard. People here are patriots and huge God botherers. The flag flies in almost every garden and you couldn’t shake a stick without bumping into a church of some denomination or other from huge TV evangelist’s complexes to – whisper it – Roman Catholic churches.  The whole coastline is made up of sandy beach with lazy creeks leading into acres of swamp and woodland. Wendy my cousin and I preferred the quiet beaches where we could laze around on the sand and watch shoals of porpoises weave their way by. The children loved the main drag, honky tonk Virginia Beach proper with its boardwalk, shops, live music and crowded strand. Inland the area is full of swamps, thick woodlands and tobacco fields. A highlight of the trip to Virginia was a visit from a very old friend Clare who came down to see us from her home in Toronto. Thirty years slipped away and we laughed and talked into the night about our lives from teenagerdom to today. No visit to suburban America is complete without a trip to the Mall. To me large shopping centres are the equivalent of Dante’s circles of hell and this one was no different. However we shopped dutifully til we almost dropped and bought lots of stuff we didn’t need or even necessarily want.

 

If you find yourself in that neck of the woods with children the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science centre is worth a visit. The only thing that mars this place is the continual zooming overhead of extremely noisy fighter jets on training flights. The noise is unbearable and really ruins what should be a peaceful walk around the woods.  We spent a great day there looking at sharks, finding out about the geology and morphology of the area and went on a cruise on Owl’s Creek saltmarsh.  I managed to spend a peaceful afternoon alone (no takers) at the sleepy and beautiful Norfolk Botanic gardens. These gardens adjoin Norfolk ‘International’ Airport (we never did find out what was so international about it as it appears only to run domestic flights) but the slow drone of overhead planes was positively calming after the nerve shattering jets at Virginia Beach.

 

We decided we had to do a bit of historic tourism and took a trip to Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg. Jamestown was the first settlement of the Virginia Colony, founded in 1607, and served as capital of Virginia until 1699, when the seat of government was moved to Williamsburg. Here there is nothing at all left of the original town, but there is a very informative museum and recreated Native American and European settlements and reproductions of the three ships which carried the first settlers on board. The children really enjoyed the day out and got a kick of trying out the old beds and putting on replica armour. Colonial Williamsburg is a strange place indeed. It is very pretty, but most of the buildings are actually 20th century reconstructions though some date from 1699 (the Christopher Wren building belonging to William and Mary university) to 1780.. It  is a living-history museum and owned privately by a foundation. It can be very disconcerting: strange people dressed in 18th century garb approach you as you are sitting peacefully and start talking nonsense to you in what they think is an 18th century fashion. There are daily parades where the proclamation of independence is announced and muskets and cannons fired. The whole thing is surreal and a bit hokey and astronomically expensive. It is a sanitised version of history, and the most notable absence from the whole thing are the African slaves on the back of whose labours the whole edifice was built (one or two token black faces are seen working in shops and pretending to be house servants).

 

Clare left us and went back to Canada and we decided to take an unscheduled trip to North Carolina – home of the 3 dollar watermelon according to the endless signs lining the highway. Our first stop was Roanoke.  Roanoke Island  was where Sir Walter Raleigh planted an English settlement in 1585 and 1587. The colony didn’t survive and nobody knows what happened to them and the ‘lost colony’ has been subject to myth and speculation for 400 years. Personally I think they died of boredom. Living on a sand dune which is regularly bashed by hurricanes can’t have been easy. Next stop was Kitty Hawk, where Orville and Wilbur Wright worked on and flew the first ever motorised plane. They chose the site for the large sand flats which would ensure a soft landing and for its isolation as they had galloping paranoia about competitors stealing their ideas. There is a small museum here and it is quite astonishing to see that within 60 years of the first short, staggering flight in a flimsy little hand built plane men travelled to the moon in rockets. Will technological advances ever take place at the rate they did in the 20th century again?

 

North Carolina is a sleepy agrarian place with acres and acres of field growing watermelons, sweet corn and peanuts. The coastline is full of holiday homes built on stilts because regular hurricanes cause the tide to flood inland. The grandly named ‘Town of Duck’ is rather like Brittas Bay and is a perfect place for families and children to stay for a few days in sunshine. It must be hell in the rain.

We returned to Virginia Beach and hung out in Wendy and Stuart’s house for a few more days R&R and then packed our bags for Washington DC. The train rolled into beautiful Union Station and we took a taxi to our hotel on 14th Street. Washington is much smaller than I had imagined. It is clean, beautifully laid out and revolves around the government and the Pentagon. The museums are fantastic – the Smithsonian has 19 buildings around the city with collections ranging from American Indian History to transport. I was most delighted by the reconstruction of Julia Child’s kitchen which I had read about and seen in the film Julie and Julia. The White House is smaller than one would think, but chocolate box pretty. On our visit the Washington monument was covered in scaffolding as it was being cleaned and restored. The city is like one big mausoleum really with statues and follies and monuments dedicated to the great and good – the huge statue of Lincoln and the lovely classical Jefferson monument being the more notable. The Capitol is also very pretty and the whole place is beautifully kept. The oldest part of Washington is Georgetown with its university and old Victorian terraces.

 

We left Washington and returned to New York by train and arrived in decrepit Penn Station for the second time. The most striking thing for me about the small part of the United States we saw was that it is a land of waste and excess. The reluctantly given tax dollars of the citizens appear to spent mainly on wars abroad. The infrastructure is shockingly poor. Railroads are run down, metro stations decrepit and ill kept, roads potholed, the famous bridges of New York are crumbling. Outside the cities public transport is negligible. In Virginia, a land of summer sunshine I did not see a single solar panel. Where my cousin lives it is forbidden to dry washing outside. Air conditioning blasts from every home and building making the atmosphere chilly. I saw no recycling sites (though there must be some). Houses are flimsily built, power and utility lines are over ground rather than buried and plates are piled high with sugary calorific food. Much maligned little Ireland seems modern and cutting edge by comparison. Despite the drawbacks we had a fantastic holiday and everyone we met was kind, friendly and polite. We are already planning a west coast trip for another year!1148823_10151872999748619_415512248_n

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