Past The Horse You Came In On Saloon, in a cobbled street in the Fells Point neighbourhood of Baltimore, stood a Ford pick-up truck flying the American flag on its bonnet over decorative bullet holes. A short distance away the steps of an old English brickhouse sported a sign reading “Support President Bush & Our Troops” amidst pots of yellow daffodils, stars and stripes. It was spring, trees were blossoming, but the morning air off the harbour still dictated the wearing of an overcoat.
Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Baltimore, an hour northeast of Washington, DC, is where The Star Spangled Banner, the national anthem, was written during the war of 1812 with Britain. The anthem glorifies war. And so, it may be said, it still confuses America with its concepts of patriotism, fortification and war.
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
The city off the Chesapeake Bay also excels in crab. That morning we went in search of patriotism and crabs. On the corner hung a sign for Duda’s Tavern, owned by the family Curley, since 1949. At 11:30, we were the first to take up a position at the bar; in front of jars of pretzels and rows of hot pepper sauce bottles, to order crab cakes.
“How are you?” the tattooed young barman, Scott Curley, greeted. “Do you guys know anything about the game today?” He paged through the sports section. The Baltimore Orioles baseball team had their opening day game against the Detroit Tigers that day at three o’clock. Seats in the Camden Yards Stadium were sold out.
“What game?” We were more interested in the results of the Cricket World Cup, but that was another matter. Scott looked up, “Where are you guys from?” Upon hearing South Africa, Scott recognised a continent and told us that he had been to Djibouti while he served three years in the US Marine Corps. He had done two tours in Iraq before being medically boarded for damage to various joints.
“I am not the smartest guy in the world”, he said readily. “I got to carry all the heavy gear for miles, sometimes as much as 300 pounds (sic) at a time. They called me Mule”, he laughed.
Scott served us crab cake sandwiches and root beer while Bruce Springsteen’s rock songs played and the bar filled up with Orioles supporters. On the Chesapeake Bay, renowned for its beautiful lighthouses, crab is served spicy. The sweet meat of the blue crabs are generously spiced, particularly with red pepper, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and Tabasco. I ordered a second root beer, a soda with the flavours of honey and vanilla, and started a conversation with two stubbled men on the barstools to my left. They were from the state of New Jersey (which they pronounced New Joizy). They were die-hard Orioles fans who had come to see the game. Baseball teams, they explained, draw their fans not necessarily from their geographical areas. Many historical and other factors come into play. My New Joizy neighbour at the bar had a grandfather from Baltimore – family tradition.
He seemed like a big sports fan, but I was still curious about the cricket results. So I wagered, “Do you perhaps know the results of the Cricket World Cup?” Blank stares, upon which my partner whispered to me that "cricket" to most people in the States refers to an insect that may go under the first name of Jiminy. “Ireland won!” someone piped up. Upon encountering our deep suspicion, Scott recommended that we find Irish Dave, the barkeeper, at the Slainte Pub down the road for more results.
On our way to Irish Dave, we strolled into a souvenir shop filled with crab memorabilia of all kinds. Red coffee mugs with crabs saying "Don’t bother me, I’m crabby", spice mixtures for crab, crab recipe books, hats with crab pincers and stilted eyes, crab salt & pepper shakers – you get the idea. This place was a crab lover's paradise.
At Irish Dave’s, soccer was showing on a big-screen television. In the end we spoke more about the fortunes of the present governor of the state of Maryland, in which Baltimore is situated, than about entomology. Governor O’Malley is an Irish-Catholic Democrat, who was formerly the mayor of Baltimore. Run of the mill, you may think, until you take into account that 64% of the population of Baltimore is African-American, which makes a white Irish-Catholic mayor elect a talented politician, indeed. Governor O’Malley has high ambitions, they say, in Fells Point with much nudge-nudging and wink-winking.
Root beers turned to Irish brews, until we finally blinked our way into the cold sunlight for a water taxi to take us to Baltimore’s inner harbour – past the excellent National Aquarium, the USS Constellation (a ship from the Civil War which patrolled the coast of Africa to intercept illegal slave trade), and the Baltimore World Trade Centre (heavily barricaded on the water’s side against possible terrorist attacks from the sea). We eagerly made our way to a three-storey Barnes & Noble bookstore. Half of its first floor was a travel section, we saw to our delight. Only to be reminded of America’s provincialism when we discovered that most of the section was taken up by books on North America. The rest of the world was marked "International" and occupied one relatively small shelf.
So, when in Baltimore, do as the Americans do and look in, not out. Fortunately, it is a gorgeous and interesting city, boasting the first Washington monument, erected here long before the Capital’s monument arose. There is beautiful architecture, from the modern architecture of IM Pei to waterfront brick factories converted into trendy office space. Jazz singer, Billie Holiday, author, Edgar Allan Poe, and the "Sultan of Swat" – Babe Ruth – were natives of Baltimore. Most everywhere, including painted on fire hydrants in the wealthy leafy suburbs, the Star Spangled Banner takes pride of place.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
We checked out of the Admiral Fell Inn, with its tales of war heroes and politicians on the door of each room, and smiled over the address on our bill, “Cape Town, West Virginia, South Africa”. The online booking form would not accept our reservation without a US state in the address; West Virginia seemed closest to Western Cape at the time. Soon enough, we were headed out of Baltimore; we drove past the baseball stadium at Camden Yards. The United Methodist Church opposite had not yet replaced the announcement of the last Sunday’s service, for a "Go Orioles Prayer Service". The Orioles had beaten the visitors. We still didn’t know anything more about the Cricket World Cup.