Monthly Archives: September 2012

A short venture into Canada

Really, I should have expected it. I guess I’d just been taking it for granted up to that point, that people travelling on the American continent were travelling in America. It didn’t occur to me that as soon as I crossed the border, everyone would be swapping stories about their Canadian trips, and repeating names and mentioning places that I hadn’t heard of (or if I had, it was more a “oh, THAT’S how you pronounce it,” reaction). And I felt really guilty. Because my only stop in Canada was a tiny place called Prince Edward Island.

P.E.I is famous for three things: Lobster, potatoes, and Anne of Green Gables. It was the last attraction that was bringing me all the way there, and it was enough of a pull that I was shelling out the 600 odd dollars for the plane there and back, when there was plenty left to see and do in the States. In case you missed the earlier post about Concord, I’ve rather a thing for visiting literary related places, and P.E.I can feel at times like one big museum dedicated to the author of Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maude Montgomery.


My lobster dinner. Check that off the bucket list.

If you’re unfamiliar with the books (and if so I pity you and the deprivation you must have suffered in your childhood), they’re about a red-haired orphan girl called Anne, who’s fiercely independent and very imaginative. She’s sent to live with an elderly couple on P.E.I, and grows up on their farm, making friends pretty much wherever she goes. They’re endearing stories, often amusing as Anne usually gets into mischief without meaning to, but they also deal with themes like loss, and fairness, and hardship, and grief.

Green Gables.

Lucy Maude grew up on the Island, and much of the book’s setting comes from the places where she lived. I got to see Lover’s Lane, and the Haunted Woods, and you can visit the Lake of Shining Waters, and obviously Green Gables itself.
It was a real house, owned by real people, but Montgomery used it as the setting for Matthew and Marilla’s farmhouse, and so that is how it is now set up. When I was looking in Anne’s room, there was a lady in there with her granddaughter. And they were pointing things out in the room, like the dress with the puffed sleeves, and the broken slate, and Anne’s old bag, and they were both so delighted in everything, and I understood all over again the power that books can have. When I first took down Anne of Green Gables from the shelf in my grandmother’s house, who would have thought it would bring me all the way to P.E.I itself?

Anne’s room at Green Gables.

My last evening on the island (after having visited the potato museum, and eaten lobster) I went and saw Anne of Green Gables – the Musical. There is more than one musical based on Anne of Green Gables. Just so you know. It was possibly one of the most cliched musicals I have ever sat through (they have a song just about eating ice-cream), but it was also terribly moving. It included almost all my favourite parts (Anne dyeing her hair green, Dianna getting drunk on currant wine, and Anne breaking the slate over Gilbert’s slate) and although there was no near drowning in the river as Anne pretended to be Ophelia, it was so well acted that I forgave them.
The worst bit, or the best, depending on how you look at it, was that right at the end (spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the books),  right before Matthew dies, he sings this song to Anne about how she should never change. That in itself was heartbreaking, but then he does die, and following that, Marilla sings a song called “The Words” about how she could never express how much she loved him (and Anne) and how she misses him. It sounded as if the actress was in tears. I certainly was. And so was most of the audience, judging from the faces in the toilets after the show. And I loved it. Because it just goes to show that a simple story about an ordinary girl, who is anything but ordinary, can affect generations of readers.
And there’s something pretty special about that.

A Capital Time

I was fully prepared for trumpets and a swelling soundtrack when the plane hit the tarmac in Washington, D.C. After all, this was the capital city of America. This was where Congress met, where the President lived, where the biggest fireworks for the Fourth of July were let off. No city could be more American than this one.

That being said, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to my four days in D.C. Not the way I’d been looking forward to other parts of my trip at least. I felt that D.C. was somewhere I ought to go, seeing as how I was spending three months in the country, and I ought to at least be able to say I’d been there. I knew it had some good museums, and I was kind of looking forward to seeing the White House, but other than that I wasn’t all that excited.

D.C. surprised me.

The White House. Not that it needs an introduction.

My Lonely Planet described D.C. as the grandfather of America, with all the museums serving as a sort of attic, where all the keepsakes and treasures from years past have been kept. But I think that’s doing it an injustice. When you look down the national mall for the first time, which reaches from the Jefferson memorial to the Capitol building, it is difficult to feel anything but awe. One long stretch of green lined with enormous, grand, white buildings, ruled over the Washington monument, which somehow achieves an elegance you wouldn’t expect from what is essentially a whopping great oblong with a point at the top. And when I say “long stretch” I mean long. It is deceptively long, and the blisters I got on my feet from walking up and down it for four days will vouch for it. And that’s not even accounting for all the walking around the museums.

One of my favourite displays in the National Museum of Natural History.

The D in D.C apparently ought to stand for “deceptive” because it tries to trick you with it’s museums, too. They call all the museums “The Smithsonian” as if it’s just one museum. It’s not. It’s nineteen. Nineteen enormous museums and galleries, seventeen of which are in D.C, lining the national mall. And they’re all free, which to a backpacker on a budget, is excellent news. Out of the seventeen, I visited three: the National Museum of American History (where they have Dorothy’s slippers and Kermit the Frog), the National Museum of Natural History (which was my favourite, and I loved it more than the Museum of Natural History in New York), and the National Air and Space Museum. I also visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Archives (where they have a copy of the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution), the Library of Congress (America really knows how to do libraries well), and the Folger Shakespeare Library (which has the largest collection of Shakespeare materials in the world, but unfortunately not many of these are on display…)

The Library of Congress, just behind the Capitol, which is at one end of the National Mall.

It took me the whole four days, and that doesn’t even include the tourist photos in front of the White House, or all the visiting of all the war memorials. Of the latter, the most moving was the Vietnam War Memorial, which was built like a gash in the earth, and as one of the most recent wars, was being visited still by mourners.

The Vietnam War Memorial.

I think that one of the reasons D.C. stood out to me was that it worked as a place of reflection and grief (the permanent exhibition at the Holocaust museum had me fighting back tears at several points, but the two that stand out were a section where you sit down,  put on headphones, and listen to survivors telling their stories about daily life in the concentration camps; and a narrow hall with two enormous piles of shoes on either side, that were taken off people before they were sent into the gas chambers), but it was also a place of reverence and celebration of all that America has been able to achieve. I learnt so much in those few days, and I felt as if I was being let in on some huge secret.

America, at the beginning of September, is full of talk about the upcoming elections. Discssions over policies and party platforms seem to be happening everywhere, and there is a strong sense of disenchantment with politics in general. But if America has at it’s heart this great city with vast collections of knowledge that are free to anyone willing to walk through the doors, then I have a great deal of hope.

The Washington Monument, as seen from the Jefferson Memorial. Fun fact: nothing in D.C. is allowed to be higher than the Washington Monument.

Confession #2

It’s about time I made another confession. And it’s not that I still haven’t started “On the Road” (although I haven’t. So I guess I ought to confess to that too). No, what I have to confess is that I love supermarkets. In other countries. I get excited by rows and rows of products I haven’t seen before, and layouts I don’t understand, and measuring systems that the rest of the world believes to be outdated (America, seriously. The metric system follows actual rules.) Anyhow, I believe it’s time I shared some of my love of supermarkets, and the products they stock, with you.

Walmart is pretty much your stock standard store. It’s the Safeway of America, with the scale of Aldi, and cool-level of say, IGA (which is of course to say, non-existent). There are a lot of derogatory comments made about the stereotypical person who shops at Walmart. It doesn’t matter though, because Walmart is so freaking huge that it’s impossible for it to be boring. If you want to buy something, you can find it at Walmart. You practically need a map to get around, and if you’re on a schedule, I’m the last person you want with you. I get distracted by everything, from cereals, to biscuits, to soup, to lollies.

It’s really odd to go into a supermarket, a familiar place, and realise you’re out of your depth. You don’t recognise the brands, or the names of the products. And then Americans like to make everything more difficult by calling the food itself by a different name. Lollies are candy, biscuits are crackers (and scones are sometimes biscuits and sometimes scones), jam is jelly, and jelly is jell-o. But it doesn’t stop there. I mean, hard enough that the pronunciation for basil is “baysil,” without capsicums being peppers and coriander becoming cilantro.

I forgive them all this, though, because it is just so much fun. The poptarts are some of my favourites, because of all the flavours. In fact, everything comes in multiple flavours, because Americans are all about choice. Size, definitely, and choice. The ice-cream section seems to run for miles, and even the pasta aisle is overwhelming.  It makes it extremely hard to be me, because obviously I want to know what cinnamon and raisin peanut butter tastes like (excellent, if you were wondering. Especially on apples. I’m bringing some home).

With all of the wonder of Walmart before me, you might question why I’d ever want to visit another supermarket. You have not, in this case, heard of Whole Foods. This particular grocery-heaven has no equivalent in Australia. It is in a class all of its own. It is a supermarket dedicated to organic food. You won’t find your poptarts here. Instead, you grind the peanut butter yourself, and buy plastic cutlery that’s recyclable. The best part about Whole Foods though, is that they basically have an entire food court inside the store. Feeling like sushi? Restaurant quality pizza? Curry? There’s a bakery to supply all your cupcake longings, and a cheese department to make most French supermarchés proud.

The best of this, though, is the salad bar. I’m not talking your average garden salad. I’m talking “quinoa and mango” or “Mediterranean vegetable” or “Tuscan pasta.” And if absolutely nothing takes your fancy, there’s another whole bar of just ingredients for you to create your own. I had salad for dinner the other night, and I actually think it would have been quicker for me to just go home and cook something because of how long it took me to choose the salads I wanted (so worth it, though. So, so worth it).

I can’t finish this post without mentioning my favourite discovery so far. My heartfelt thanks go out to Clare and Eugene, because without them I would not have sampled the delights of granola.

Granola is not muesli. I like muesli. It’s healthy, and you can mix nice stuff with it. But it’s not granola. Granola is crunchy, and while that difference may be small, it is important. Granola with yoghurt is the best way to start off the day, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. You can get it with as many flavours as any other American product (and yes, I may have a slight fixation with cinnamon and raisin) and it tastes excellent with fresh fruit, particularly blueberries.  I don’t know if it’s possible to buy it in Australia, but if I can’t find it anywhere I am going to learn how to make it.

I have my priorities in order.

Boston: A Different Sort of City

I’m at the point, writing this, where I can look back and compare various American cities. Because they are all different. It’s easy, I think, when you grow up knowing one city, and calling it “the” city, to believe that you know what cities are like. But really, you only know what that one city is like. Every city has its own life, and while some share enough characteristics for there to be a sameness about them, I still think if you stayed there long enough you’d come to delight in the differences. And even though I barely had enough time in Boston to get more than a glimpse of the differences there, I know it was not a city in the same way Melbourne is.

People speak about Boston with a kind of reverence. It’s certainly an old city, and it revels in this more than other cities I’ve been to. With the Boston Common as the heart of the city, and the government buildings surrounding it, it feels stately.

A swan boat on the lake in the Boston Common.

When in Boston, there is one thing everyone asks you: “Have you done the Freedom Trail?” The red line that scores the cobbled street from the Common to Bunker Hill is dotted by tourists. Some are being herded along by costumed guides. Others, like me, are peering from their guidebooks or maps to the plaques on the walls. It says something about a city when the major attraction is not the tallest building, or the house of someone famous, or a sign, but a walk dedicated to the city’s history.

A typical plaque on the Freedom Trail. Unfortunately, this particular landmark is now a Mexican restaurant.

By the time I made it up the 294 steps of the Bunker Monument, where only the most dedicated of the tourist hoarde remained, I’d learnt an awful lot about Boston. And the nice thing was that for once it wasn’t so hard to imagine myself back there. If I ignored the tourists, and shut out the horns of the duck boats, it was rather easy to see Paul Revere and his ilk striding the same streets I was.

The Bunker Monument.

Of course, Boston isn’t all about its revolutionary past. It’s also home to Harvard University. Or “Hahvahd” as it’s pronounced by real Bostonians. Stately and smart. I did a guided walking tour of the campus, and was looking forward to showing off my own intelligence at the statue of three lies. But apparently everyone else on the tour has seen “The Social Network” as well.

Like so many things I’ve seen in America, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a real place, and not part of an elaborate movie set. Having visited Warner Bros. Studios, I know exactly how elaborate movie sets can be. But all the buildings had both a back and a front, and those were real soon-to-be-college students wandering the lawns.

For the record, the three lies are that, in contrary to the plaque which reads “John Harvard, Founder, 1638,” the university was founded in 1636, John Harvard wasn’t the founder of it, and it’s not even a statue of John Harvard.

There was one experience I had in Boston that I hope I never have to endure again, and also that relates a little to this idea of city “sameness.” In most of the cities I’ve visited so far, if you walk for long enough you’ll come across a group of black guys doing a street performance. If you’ve seen it once, and think it’s original, it’s not. They even use the same jokes in New York as they do in Santa Monica. Basically, five or six of these guys demonstrate how skilled they are at break-dancing and doing flips, and then they drag a child from the growing crowd and teach him some move that everyone thinks is adorable. And then they grab another four or five unfortunate people from the crowd.

My father, if standing in a situation like this, will nine times out of ten get picked. Perhaps it’s genetic. In Boston, it was my turn.

If you think one guy taking a fifty-metre sprint toward you and then leaping over you and four other people while you crouch down and hug your knees for dear life is terrifying, you’re perfectly right. But what is more terrifying is the waiting. The three or four times he does the run-up and doesn’t jump. The riling up of the audience. And the trust. Not of the guy jumping, but of the people you’re standing with. Because if any one of them panics, your future does not look bright.

Luckily, I made it out alive. But now I do what my father always does, and hurriedly retreat to the back of any forming crowd.

Boston looking beautiful.