Monday, May 25, 2009

The spirit of America

"I'm sorry?"
"Uhm. I'm sorry, what?"
"Clearly long enough that you don't speak English anymore. How. Long. Have. You. Been. Living. Overseas?"
"Oh. Three years."
"Like it?"
"Yeah, it's alright. I'm excited to be back, though."
"Yup. Welcome home."

In a single action, the customs agent flicked my passport back to me and motioned for the next person in queue. I was released into my home country, and into the city where so much of the country began. Boston.

If you grow up in Texas and Minnesota, as I did, you develop a healthy distrust, if not outright distaste for the East Coast. I have long said that a major post-9/11 challenge for many Americans was that of reconciling their long-standing hatred toward New York City with their feelings of patriotism inspired by the tragedy that affected that city. In the last election cycle it was clear that Sarah Palin had gotten over it, returning to the belief that the East Coast as a place full of cold, self-involved elitists who have no understanding of nor desire to understand the majority of the people who make up the United States of America.

I like to think that I'm a wee bit more rational now, but I'll admit that the emotional foundation of that line of thinking is still there in my own self. Like Roman ruins in Barry, Wales. No one ever visits the Roman ruins in Barry. You could easily mistake them for the foundations of a abandoned block of flats. But they are there.

Boston, however. Boston has long been an exception to my anti-East Coast-ism. I love Boston. When I list off the American cities I'd like to live in, Boston always comes first or second (usually switching places with Chicago). I even like the name. Boston. Bahstun. Baaah-stun. Saying the name fires of a flash of indistinguishable image and smell and taste and feeling. I am unable to properly identify exactly what it is that I like about the place, only that I do like it. A lot.

It helps that one of my best friends live here. I first visited Boston in 1995, when Paul was an undergrad at MIT (a). Indeed, that was, until now, the only time I had visited Boston. And yet I am in love with the place. I suppose I have a history of that sort of thing; I had visited Wales only three times before deciding to learn its language.

Have you seen that sketch where Smithy gives a pep talk to the England football team? When he first walks into the team's hotel he shouts: "Hoo-hoo! This'll do!" That's the phrase that kept repeating in my head as I walked around Boston Thursday. Yeah, this'll do. I'd live here. I'd take on this life. I love this city. I love its look, I love its character, I love its people.

I spent my first full day in America walking the Freedom Trail. That sounds like a patriotic sexual innuendo but is, in fact, a large red line drawn into the Boston pavement designed to lead tourists past myriad points of historical interest. A 2.5-mile wander through the foundations of American history. It is tourism genius -- no map is needed, just follow the big red line, dummy. And it struck me as a good way to reintroduce myself to this country; I am starting here, where everything started.

On this tourist-laden path you can also get a feel for some of the Boston mentality. This will come as a shock to peoples of the Real America, but people here (when they're not in there cars) are shockingly friendly. I keep being thrown off by the number of people who will say hello to me, who will strike up little conversations with me, who will offer to help me find my way.

In American terms, Boston is a complicated city to navigate. It curves and zips and offers less signage than most Americans are used to. In other words, it has the feel of a well-planned British city. It was built by British people and retains some of that look and feel. It seems perfectly lovely to me. But here in America, it is god-awful impossible to understand. It hurts the American brain and causes any number of its visitors to simply stop, stare up into the sky and plead with the Lord Our God for the sweet release of eternal sleep rather than having to suffer another moment in this anti-intuitive mess.

True Bostonians, then, take immense pride in knowing their city. They carry their own version of The Knowledge and are keen to show it off whenever possible. So as you walk the Freedom Trail if you stop and look even slightly confused within seconds some old dude will run up and ask if he can help you out -- eager to have his skills put to the test by your query. Since I wasn't really going anywhere, it was impossible for me to be lost, so I would thank them and then we'd have a wee conversation about how hot it was and then bid each other a pleasant farewell. This is not the East Coast that I was raised to despise.

(a) He is now Doctor Paul -- his dissertation and defence having taken place last week. Congratulations Paul!

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