A Year and a Day #4: Departure – New York & Pittsburgh, USA

Departure
Thursday, 24th July 2003

How has the start to travelling been? It was quite strange at first. I woke up on Sunday morning and it seemed like my previous life had been something of a dream. All the way to Heathrow airport my conscious mind kept asking my brain “so, why are we going to the airport?”, to which my brain would reply “you decided to leave your job and spend a year or two travelling the world.” My conscious would consider this strange idea for a while then say “oh, ok. Sounds fun.” This conversation would repeat every 30 minutes or so.

Saying goodbye to my parents and checking in to my flight to NY I felt on autopilot, neither excited nor nervous, more like a pawn in the grip of decisions taken a long time ago – the change in my life that was taking place must have just been too immense for my mind to process fully. The Air India flight served a quite spicy Chicken Korma (that mildest of curries in English Indian restaurants), which seemed to me to be a strong reminder/portent that I was heading for unfamiliar territories, that the rest of the world held mysteries I had no inkling of.

Arrival in New York was disorientating. A feeling of “what am I doing?” was quite strong: I felt suddenly that all my planning had not prepared me one iota for the reality of what I have decided to do. I thought to myself: you have given up your London life for one of travelling to airports and leaving them. The term “a year out” had always seemed a bit derogatory to me in the past, but I am starting to appreciate some of its meanings. This is a year out from living, from climbing ladders and going to Ikea on Saturdays.

There is a nihilism to deciding to travel: over a weekend I felt like I had gone from being a participant in living (even if the specifics of my life weren’t everything I wanted) to being a perpetual observer. Fortunately, a lot of this angst is starting to go now. I think you have to adopt different values when you travel: going to Ikea on Saturdays, the urge to build things (relationships, homes, a job) is just going to be put on hold for a while – there is nothing wrong with taking a year out from it all. I am also starting to appreciate what I have gained: time, freedom, a feeling of vividness and adventure to my life.

As I was sitting on the train heading out of New York airport all that was vivid to me was what I had just given up. But I have gained such an enormous variety to my life: even in the relatively familiar East Coast USA. Each day seems wholly new, unlike my old life which was only lightly sprinkled with newness. Each day involves decisions about where to eat, thinking about how to spend as little as possible, how many things to see, consulting maps and deciding what to try out. I feel much younger all of a sudden: I have lost so many of the trappings of older age: a house to live in, a network of friends and acquaintances to spend time with and randomly call up on my mobile if I felt like it, a job to take up my time and money to spend on the things I wanted. Instead, any conversations have to be started with a leap into the social unknown.

In the Pittsburgh hostel where I’m staying, a new US TV show was being advertised – poor, criminal white kid is sent to live with decadent rich relatives. Sample dialogue: attractive older woman: “Who are you?”, brooding young guy: “Anything you want me to be.” Attempting to start a conversation over this nonsense, I remark to the other people in the hostel lounge, “Ah, another realistic TV series…” – this comment is met only by a resounding silence. Internally wincing, I quickly retreat into my Stephen King novel.

Overall, starting to relax a bit, getting used to the different standards of my new life. Especially looking forward to seeing the Pacific Ocean again, which I have not seen in four years.

New York

New York was violently humid, with low thick grey skies the whole three days I was there. The dripping heat was from time to time broken by torrential rain, which at least freshened the air for a time. On Tuesday I started a twenty minute walk that took two hours: despite holding a map, I kept taking the opposite direction to the one I had chosen – I can only blame the heat. In a bid to survive, I drank a huge container of lime Gatorade, which seemed to just switch on an internal tap in my body – by lunchtime my t-shirt had developed a white semi-circle in the centre of my chest, a residue of some of the sweat I had been releasing. Nice.

I stayed with a friend in East Village, she took me to Queens and Harlem, areas of the city that I hadn’t been to before. We went to a famous “soul food” restaurant in Harlem, Sylvia’s, which served an amazing “smothered chicken” (smothered in gravy). Good for the soul, not so sure how good it is for the body.

I love New York. I have been there five or six times through my life, and each time the city seems different. This is probably in part because I seem to visit different areas on each trip, and because I have come sometimes with my parents, once with my brother, sometimes alone, and memorably once for an office Christmas party. But also I think it is part of the nature of the city, it is such a welcoming place to walk in, soak up the atmosphere, eat and drink. Each time I go, the city welcomes me and shows me something new, yet neither of us have ever tried for a more serious liasion – a few days and then I leave again, knowing I can return when I need to. My tip would be to avoid the summer months though.

A train over the mountains

Early Wednesday morning, I took a train to Pittsburgh. I have to get to Detroit for a friend’s wedding on Saturday, and I want to see something of America away from its showcase cities. The nine hour journey is everything I hoped it would be. I sleep through the first hour or two as we pass through the industrial belt outside of New York, and wake to a silent countryside of light green trees and heavy grey skies. These two colours are the only ones I see for miles of train track – broken only by motionless hamlets and little farms, train stops with historical sounding names like “Elizabethtown”.

We arrive at the city of Harrisburg, and after that the scenery changes. The thick grey clouds that have followed me since arrival in the US start to break up, and eventually I see blue sky for the first time. The train heads higher, we are crossing the Appalachian mountains, which appear to be an endless stretch of forest, punctuated by the occasional power station or other industrial site. The expanse of wilderness is so different to the England I have come from – America is a big place.

What is the train like? Comfortable, large reclining seats, enough leg room that I can barely touch the seat in front of me when I sit back in my chair, silent aside from the hum of the air conditioning. A ticket is stuck over everyone’s seat, as a stop approaches train attendants walk the carriages reminding people who need to get off, a very nice touch. A voice comes on the tannoy to point out historic parts of the journey, in particular a giant horseshoe curve of track, built into the mountain, that allowed trains to climb over the peaks towards the inland cities.

The nine hour journey cost $54, the ticket was bought the morning of travel, and when we are delayed in Harrisburg for at most fifteen minutes, the train’s driver apologises and promises to try to catch up the lost time. The comparison with British trains starts to make me cry. Where are the “Apex Super Saver Open return” lunatic pricing rules, the hour plus delays, the uncomfortable seats? How is it that we have travelled for hours through deep forests, yet no one has mentioned the “wrong type of leaves” on the track? Why is it that every developed nation seems able to run a working train network apart from the British?

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is an interesting city, with a city centre straddling two rivers, and I don’t have the time to explore fully. It is good to see something of the more normal America. The highlight of what I have seen in the city is the museum dedicated to Andy Warhol, a native of Pittsburgh. One room that is particularly moving is “Electric Chairs”. Warhol used one photo of the New York electric chair and produced a series of works from it, of different sizes and some with bright, wall paper like colour schemes. As an Englishman, they seem interesting, but very foreign, of little emotional import. The museum, however, has recorded a three minute monologue from about twelve local people on what the paintings mean to them. These include cops, the state governor (who signs each Pennsylvania death warrant), lawyers, art historians and people whose family members were killed by current inhabitants of death row. The meaning of the paintings to each of these people is different and some of their accounts are incredibly moving (the woman who switched from being pro-death penalty to anti when her three year old son was murdered “how could I wish death on another after this?”). Warhol’s work clearly captures something about America that is hard for the foreigner (whose country has no death penalty) to comprehend just by viewing his pictures.

Another room which offers the tourist some insight into America is a collection of recent political cartoons that have generated controversy or been pulled by newspapers due to protest. Each is accompanied by text from the author of the cartoon on what they meant by it and what hate mail they got as a result. Bush’s war on Iraq, September 11 and paedophile Catholic priests are the most popular subjects. Reading the hate mail and outrage generated by these cartoons is funny – one cartoonist says a reader gave him his address, and suggested he come by to discuss the cartoon, but to make sure he had paid his dental insurance first. They are a serious reminder, however, of how many people in democracies prefer not to hear the dissonant views that make the democracy worth having. I include myself in this: I laughed approvingly at all the cartoons mocking Bush, but saw the few right wing cartoonists, who mocked reparations for black Americans or liberals in general, as simple minded morons.

Thoughts for the future

Looking forward to travelling with friends for the next couple of weeks, the adjustment to travelling alone is taking a little while. Realised almost immediately that I have too much stuff. Every time I have to lift my rucksack I am reminded that I need to think of some possessions to ditch. Hopefully things will get better after the wedding – I have a smart outfit which I can get rid of soon. However, I suspect that reforms in what I am carrying will have to be more radical than that. Although all my clothes scrunch up into a pretty small bundle, it is a reasonably heavy one. Will have to weigh up how many t-shirts I actually need, and think I will adopt a one book plus diary rule, or something similar. On to Toledo and Detroit.

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