Charlton, London: Back home on Tuesday, groggy, a bit confused, and wondering why I’d suddenly been catapaulted from summer (28C in Washington on Monday) to autumn (wind, rain, leaves everywhere). A day later, I’m crossing my fingers that a ton of sleep has minimised the effects of jetlag. I hope it has.
Many, many years ago, I used to hate travel bores. I still do, actually. My dislike for people banging on about going here and going there was founded by knowing someone who did just that – everything had to be compared with some experience in Thailand or somewhere, when at the time Tooting seemed exotic enough. Until I was 26, I’d only ever left Great Britain once in my life – for a day trip to Calais. Mainly that was down to a lack of cash, but also a lack of interest too. As a Londoner, the world comes to you. Who needs the hassle of travelling? After a particularly sticky year, a pal insisted I invested in a passport to give me a break after a particularly rubbish time. She even sent me the forms. At the end of 2001, I hopped on a Eurostar to Paris, and almost freaked the other side of the Channel Tunnel. A couple of months back, I was doing that same journey, thinking how humdrum it’s become.
But even now, I’m a rubbish traveller. I don’t actually have that much of a travel bug. And I hate flying. I hate it not just because of what it does, but because the experience of flying is always a huge hassle unless you fork out huge sums of money. It’s a horrible way of travelling. Not much choice when crossing the Atlantic, though. And I’m a creature of habit, too. If I find somewhere nice to have breakfast, I’ll be there every bloody morning. I’m crap with languages and can be really shy. I’m always woken up by someone hoovering all the other hotel rooms far too late in the morning.
But somehow, over the past three weeks, I managed to rack up enough experiences, enough tales, to bore my friends, their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ long-lost friends the other side of the world to tears between now, Christmas and beyond. What’ll stay with me, though, is the incredible generosity of almost everyone I met in both the US and Canada. Gawping at an amazing mural showing a cafe owner with Barack Obama and a load of his predecessors, I got chatting with a group of young people who’d all just started working in Washington, who promptly whisked me off to their booze-up in the Adams Morgan party district. If I hadn’t just arrived, I would have hung around to see what I’m sure would have been a messy conclusion to their night… The anti-Obama nutcases could have turned on me when I poked my camera in their faces in DC, but they were only too happy to pose and chat. Back in Boston, people mourning Ted Kennedy (whose grave I visited at Arlington cemetery) would have been entitled to wonder why the pale Englishman was in their midst – but they too were happy to chat and pose for pictures. Travelling by train in Canada was a delight because of the careful attention of the VIA Rail staff. Nobody batted an eyelid when I rocked up to a rock bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on my own – shortly followed by a man riding his motorbike into the bar. And one historic site in Philadelphia aside, there wasn’t a single place where I wasn’t made to feel wholly welcome. I even managed to bag a private ghost tour of Philadelphia because I was the only taker on a miserable, drizzly night.
Philadelphia looked like a fun city, although I didn’t really get the most out of it – terrible weather saw to that, and it was a tad quieter than I expected. I loved Washington, where you can feel the buzz of power in the air at almost every turn. Listen to any passing conversation within a mile of the White House and you’ll hear it. It has a terrific nightlife too – I managed to slip down the front of a gig by Ladyhawke, a riotously smashed Ida Maria and Frankmusic at the 9.30 Club for a bargain $20 (£12.70), although I did have to endure the sight and sound of the spiteful internet gossip hosting the shebang. It does have a terrible metro system, though, which runs a bare bones service at the weekend (a 30 minute wait?!) with trains done out like a 1970s front room. The drivers enforce their rules strictly – one even ordering a passenger to stop applying nail varnish. “We don’t want to have to smell that,” he added.
I stayed somewhere slightly different for my Washington stopover – taking a room in an apartment in the suburbs on the advice of a pal who visits there a lot, since hotels in the District of Columbia proper can be cripplingly expensive. It was a strange experience – my hosts were the geekiest couple I’ve ever come across, always online with the man of the house permanently wired up to what looked like a Bluetooth headpiece. I had a lovely room, although the TV was wired up to so many gadgets I could barely work it. I fear my hosts were disappointed I didn’t make more use of the GPS handset they supplied, pre-loaded with the locations of lots of good local things.
But it was all out of generosity, and even though I was travelling around on my own, I never felt completely out on a limb. Doing the trip by bus and rail was easy – don’t expect to get anywhere quickly, though, but just sit back and enjoy it. Going into Canada restricted the time I spent in Boston (a bad thing) but introduced me to a new country – or two new countries, because Quebec and Ontario might as well be on separate planets. And Niagara Falls was truly unforgettable.
The rest of the trip challenged my prejudices of the United States. Ignorant and insular? Maybe, but in a country which has patrotism as an unoffical state religion, the oldest building in an “historic city” is a century younger than a building five minutes from my house, where the edicts – including their religious preferences – of the founding fathers still seem to ring loud and clear, and where racial discrimination was state-backed until just a few decades ago, and where broadcast media amplifies prejudice instead of challenging it – what would you expect? I found a land of innocents, whose experiences of different attitudes and different people were very, very limited. Even my supposedly sophisticated Washington hosts expressed an irritated astonishment that “some international visitors leave the bathroom door closed when they’ve finished using it”. Shame I only read that after I’d just been to the…
And… yeah, I’ve become a travel bore, haven’t I? Now, I’m back home, it’s cold, and it’s wet. What happens now, then, eh?