One of the things I enjoyed most about living in the UK is regionality. I loved that I could spend Friday evening interpreting Liverpudlian accents, and then on Saturday head to a fitba (soccer) match just 45 minutes away, and have to learn a whole new dialect from drunk Mancunians. And it is so much more than just catch phrases and football songs. Attitudes towards homosexuality, the monarchy and farming are all influenced by where you first learnt to kick a ball. I always put this down to a relatively long history, I assumed that it was thousands of years of inventing slang and crafting hot puddings that led to such stark cultural differences. So bugger me blind if I wasn’t surprised to discover a similar situation here in the U.S. Ok, I have to be drive a little further, maybe six or seven hours, but there are accent shifts, cowboy hat frequencies and the delicious sub genre favourite pies to consider. In shifting your location a sub(marine sandwich) might become a hoagie, a hero, or a po’boy. Or even a muffalotto (yay Birmingham, Alabama!) You might drink a Coke with this in Texas, but in New York it’d be a pop, and a soda in Colorado. As far as I can tell, the vast distances between places to live, have resulted in a faster development of differences. Which makes it so much more entertaining on road trips, discovering toasted marshmallow milkshakes in one state, then promotion of rodeo heroes to rock star status in the next. When you add these quirks to the monumental landscape changes, and an abundance of wildlife (which changes with state lines too) how can you not be enchanted? Or at least hugely entertained.
Whilst in South Dakota over the past week, we stayed in a small town called Deadwood. I’ve never seen the apparently very violent TV series, but mention of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane was enough to pique my interest. We set up camp at a motel on the edge of town, which I was delighted to see had an industrial ice machine for guests. I remember this bizarre detail from films of road trips across the West, it seems no night in a budget motel is complete without an emergency kidney removal in a chilled bathtub. As I contemplated a home-made slushy, we noted a flyer advising that a public gun fight was due to start at 6:00pm. Colour me excited! A fast trot took us to the slowly filling sidewalks (not footpaths), and we took a squat on the pavement amongst the burgeoning crowds. We were soon twitching at gunfire, grimacing at over-acting, and taking part in the trial of Jack McCall, cowardly assassin of Wild Bill. There was country music, there were gags, and there were thick layers of American cheese. But as a gent I spoke to yesterday put it, America is good at corny. And he emphasised the GOOD. And they are, I can’t imagine the re-enactment of Wild Bill’s death in a crowded saloon bar being done quite as well, yet ever so slightly badly, anywhere else. So now I want to check out medieval times, before I head over to Scotland for a rollicking highland games…
One disturbing revelation on the road, has been my growing appreciate for the culture of tipping. Like all hard-working, poorly served kiwis, the idea of people expecting a tip bewildered me. Until I experienced the results. Considerably cheaper meals helped aid the transition, but from day two I’ve happily been adding an extra 20% on top of my buffalo burger bill. Because in return for this socialised tax you get a dose of (sometimes genuine) positivity. Being greeted with a grin, and then actively engaged with just enhances my good mood, no matter the reasons for the conviviality. I get a huge menu selection, a meal to last all day, and a chat with the waitress (server…) about whether key lime pie lived up to my expectations. Oh, and “cowboy coffee”. Eek, how easily smiles can soften my stoney heart!
In between bursts of travel along the interstate highways, I’ve been spending a week at a time back in Boulder. This gives me time to get to grips with all I’ve seen, and to write of it, and try to draw conclusions from my experiences. Of course it’s not seven days huddling over my laptop in a library. I’m getting to attend birthday parties, meals and gigs with all sorts of people, and to share my insights, and build on them with each engagement. One thing I’ve noticed on these occasions is that many people seem to possess a more natural ability to offer a compliment, and indeed to accept one. I’ve seen this numerous times, and although occasionally there are obvious motivations, in general it just seems to be a selfless kindness. And I’m warming to it. I’ve spent a few years growing my inner cynic, thanks to spending long periods of time dwelling on the wrongs I see being done in the world. And time in England (with the help of witty comedic heroes like Frankie Boyle and David Mitchell) helped craft a bitter (with a twist of witty) edge to my writing. And I guess at times, my personality. So now I’m feeling somewhat invigorated for getting a chance to tell someone they look stunning, without them waiting for a punchline, or assuming I’m envisioning them manacled to a wall in a nurses uniform.
So sunny days, gun slinging, chocolate and peanut butter pie, I’m hooked. As an eye-opening, expectation twisting adventure, the US is brilliant, but it’s the depth of cultural experience that is proving my greatest thrill. I’m looking forward to countering cowboy experiences with visits to native American reservations, tasting even better tequila, and (weirdly) further rattlesnake encounters. But already this trip has changed my opinions, inspired dozens of writing ideas, and exceeded my expectations. Magic.