Blogging about Japan, food, parenthood, music and life!
Last year Hubby and I spent Valentine’s Day in the US. I was mega organised and made him a card in advance so that I could pack it in the suitcase and surprise him with it on the 14th. In the event, I forgot and left the card sitting in the hallway at home. Thankfully, it was too exciting a trip to get bogged down in obligatory stuff like Valentine’s Day cards.
Hubby was on tour with his band, and I was privileged enough to be invited along.
I had never been to America before but I’d always desperately wanted to go. Seeing America on the TV and in films and reading about it in Stephen King books, it was like an alternative reality – a parallel universe, similar to the UK in so many ways, and yet fundamentally different. I’d always wondered what it would be like to lose the uptight British reserve, and let it all hang out like these American people.
Was it really like that?? Did people actually eat waffles for breakfast, and take lunch to school in a cute brown paper bag? Did people actually say “Have a nice day” every 5 minutes, and order complicated coffee and sandwich combinations? Did they REALLY hold eye contact with strangers, eat ‘donuts’, and believe in the American Dream??
What was a Hush Puppy? What was a chicken-fried steak? A Slim Jim? A Twinkie? I had so many questions… (OK. Yes. Mainly food related.)
When I was 17 years old, my county youth orchestra toured Austria to celebrate Mozart’s bicentenary. It was a fabulous tour, full of well-attended concerts and memorable sightseeing trips to Salzburg and Vienna. One of the events that stuck in my mind was a joint concert we did with an American youth orchestra and choral society from Philadelphia.
We had a rehearsal on the afternoon of the concert to smooth out any issues, which began with the customary wary glances at our unfamiliar counterparts, and the awkward ‘desk dance’ (a hyena-like prowling of the best seats in the orchestral hierarchy, whilst saying things like, “Obviously I don’t care where I sit,” and “I’m sure you’re much better than I am – why don’t you have the end chair?” through gritted smiles). But after we’d all settled and were more or less happy with the seating plan, relations warmed up considerably.
As a double bassist, I was absolutely in awe of the way the American bass section had swanned into the rehearsal room. Their basses were encased in enormous white coffin-like structures with wheels on, which were being carted around by henchmen! This seemed impossibly glamorous to me – me, with my scruffy soft case, purplish bruise on my shoulder where the strap was rubbing my skin away, and the beginnings of sciatica that would plague me for years!
The other thing that had me in thrall was the fact that, out of 4 bass players, two of them were Chinese. Except, they weren’t Chinese. They were American. They had American passports, American names, beautiful American teeth, and American confidence.
We chatted during the rests (probably shouldn’t have), and I remember being flabbergasted by the difference between my experience of life, and theirs. When I tentatively asked whether they were ever teased about having parents of Chinese origin, they looked horrified and offended in equal measure. They told me that no one in America would dream of calling you out on account of your colour or heritage.
I thought gloomily about the misery I’d suffered at school – about the names I’d been called, the faces that had been pulled, the scorn heaped on my head if I pronounced a word wrong – and America seemed to glow like the promised land; like a haven of acceptance, equality and riches.
We exchanged addresses, and even corresponded for a while, and inside my head, America grew into this huge symbol of tolerance and multiculturalism.
The reality was interesting.
First of all, I had NO IDEA what a huge country it was. Although I knew it academically, it is one thing to see the boundaries of the US drawn on a political map, and a completely different thing to travel on a coach from one snow-covered venue, to another hot and sunny venue in 10 hours, when on the map, it had looked like a hop, skip and a jump!
A lot of my experiences in America last year did correspond with my expectations (the waffles, the fried food, the smiley faces), and a few encounters with the locals were straight out of a Simpsons episode.
Visiting Washington DC and having our photo taken outside the White House was thrilling (alas, it would probably be less thrilling now, dare I say) - Washington was one of the few places we visited that gave us a sense of America’s history.
The places on our tour itinerary weren’t particularly multicultural. I still felt like a tiny minority – which is fine; I’m used to it, but I had expected something different in America. The food stocked in the convenience stores seemed to tell their own story. The odd burrito was as multicultural as the food offerings got – it was mainly burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs and pastries.
I thought of our local store back home, in our easy-going, unsophisticated village which stocks sushi, quinoa, halloumi cheese, samosas and spring rolls…and realised that maybe our British society is much more multicultural than I gave it credit for. Eating healthily on tour was very difficult. We tended to frequent fast food joints, and the breakfasts were heavy on bread items and greasy meat (?). I once asked the shop we stopped at whether I could buy an apple, and they looked most confused. Apple pie, yes. Raw apple, no.
The best thing about the tour, though, was my husband’s band. They did 6 concerts in 7 days, and played like the consummate professionals they are, every single time. It sends a shiver down the spine when you see such a collection of talent, commitment and class in one place. The American audiences were absolutely blown away by the sheer brilliance of the playing – it made me proud to be part of the whole experience. Many of the audience members agreed that they’d never heard anything like it – quite a feat for a band from a small community in Wales.
I can’t wait for the next tour. Hopefully, my CD sales figures were high enough that I’ll get asked back…