Coming to America - A Brit's First Visit
I have lived in the United Kingdom for the whole of my 55 years and have only once set foot in the United States, although I have of course read a great deal about American life and politics and, like the rest of the British population, been inundated by America's cultural exports for most of my life!
What follows are a few impressions gained from that single visit, in June 2006. I flew to Baltimore, Maryland, to attend a conference at which I was supposed to help promote a book that I had co-edited. The book signing (etc) never happened, for reasons that are best forgotten, but I was able to see a little of Baltimore during a very short stay (less than a week).
Beggars in the street
Sorry, America, but this is going to be one of my lasting impressions. Yes, of course we have homeless people in our big cities in the UK, However, they tend to sit in doorways mumbling "spare change?" as you walk past. We also have buskers who play a musical instrument and invite people to throw coins into a hat, but they are just as likely to be music students as down-and-outs. However, in America they're organised! (and none of them can play a note!)
On my first morning in Baltimore I was accosted by a guy who demanded ten dollars to help pay for dental treatment, and three days later I heard him trying the same line with someone else. I actually got caught by one chap who claimed to be a delegate at my conference who had left his wallet in his hotel and needed a quick loan. Could I oblige in exchange for my business card so that he could repay me later in the week? What a patter! I doubt if I was the only conference attendee who fell for that one!
On one occasion I needed to cross at an intersection, only to discover that there was a beggar positioned on each of the four corners--in order to get to the far side I had no choice but to pass three of them!
I lost count of the number I passed each day in downtown Baltimore, but the common factors of all of them seemed to be that they knew exactly how much they wanted from you, and they had a reason why you should give it to them. Somebody told me that the beggars are professionals who make an excellent living out of mugs like me.
Nobody walks much
I am one of the greenest people I know. I had a real fit of conscience about getting on a plane to cross the Atlantic twice in a week, and I'm glad to say that I haven't flown anywhere since then. At home, my car is often unused for weeks at a time. And if I can walk somewhere, I do.
I had heard that America is built around its roads and the car is king, but I hadn't really appreciated the truth of this until my trip to Baltimore. In a UK city you will find that many inner-city streets have been pedestrianised and vehicle access is prohibited. American cities seem to have plenty of streets to spare, but, at least in Baltimore, I did not see any attempt to reclaim a few for the person on foot.
One reason why this is unlikely to happen in Baltimore is that there would seem to be little reason for anyone to want to walk along streets that are lined with hotels, offices, an assortment of bars and restaurants, but hardly any shops. I had wanted to do some souvenir shopping, but this was impossible, as there was just nowhere to do it. I did find a small shopping mall, but none of the shops were open, even at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Presumably all the shops are out of town and everybody drives to them.
My last day was free for sightseeing, so I decided to visit the railway musuem at the terminus of the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This was no more than about half a mile from my hotel, so I had a pleasant walk there and back. However, on arrival it was clear that people were not expected to do this, as the only entrance to the building was from the car park, and there was no route into the car park except on the road via a lifting barrier. The man on the gate kindly lifted the barrier to save me having to dodge underneath it!
I had several evening walks on my own around the old part of Baltimore and made some interesting discoveries. I have since learned that these streets are amongst the most dangerous in America and I would probably have been safer in Beirut or Baghdad, but I have to say that I was not aware of anything to worry me!
On the transport front, I enquired at the conference centre about how to get to Annapolis, which I had heard was worth a visit. It came as quite a surprise to learn that there is no way that you can take a train from Maryland's largest city to its state capital! I wonder if there are other states of which this is true?
Anyone know anything about birds?
After coming back from the Railroad museum, I wanted to go to the Baltimore Museum of Art, and I have to say that I'm glad I did. I had a wonderful afternoon wandering through its galleries and gardens and would recommend it to anyone with a love of Art. The sculpture garden is excellent, with beautiful and challenging exhibits set in cool and leafy surroundings.
Hence the birds.
America has species of birds that are completely unknown in Great Britain, and in fact I don't think I saw any birds, apart from seagulls and sparrows, that were even vaguely familiar. In particular, the sculpture garden was well supplied with several varieties, the most striking being a small bird with a yellow beak and bright red plumage. I asked several people in the museum and the restaurant what this bird was, and nobody had a clue!
I would have thought that in a place patronised by people of taste and distinction, somebody would have known what this remarkable bird was called, but no! I later learned that it was a cardinal, by the way!
It was worth the visit!
The above may sound a bit negative, but I had a great time on my first visit outside Europe. I thought, though, that Americans might like to know how a foreign visitor is struck by what he finds, both the good and the not-so-good.
My final impression, looking down from 35,000 feet at thousands of miles of sea, is just what a huge physical gap there is between you and us. It's no surprise that we sometimes find it hard to understand each other!