Thursday, 28 August 2014

Doctor Who And The Lonesome Pine - America Part Four

"And this is where they filmed the wedding..."

Carlene, John's mother, is showing us around Big Stone Gap. A small mountain town about forty-five minutes drive away from Jonesville, it is steeped in literary and cultural history. Like the particular vision of my life, everything seems to draw parallel with a book, which is essentially what art is for. The wonder being that while staring at the art is observed, the art staring back at you is often overlooked.

Carlene was an extra in the movie adaptation of a book, Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani. The book tells of life in Big Stone Gap during the 1970's, and is in turn an adaptation of a proposal for a television series Trigiani wrote and then turned into a book. The story also revolves around the staging of a real-life play, The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine, which the townsfolk perform every year and is one of the longest-running plays in the United States. The play is based on a book by John Fox Jr of the same name, who lived in Big Stone Gap and whose home is now a museum. So the cultural snake eats its own tail. Keep up.

Months previously, Carlene had spent a few days a week driving up to Big Stone Gap and taking part in crowd scenes for the upcoming movie. She'd got to meet Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Elfman, Patrick Wilson, Ashley Judd and Adriana Trigiani herself. The movie is out next year. I had taken to reading the book on the porch each evening, so there was a bizarre reflection between the places I was visiting and the locations in the book, unravelling themselves in turn.

It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon, which makes the trees turn a shade of green I couldn't even begin to describe. We drove past The Patio, a drive-in restaurant that asked you to flash your lights if you wanted someone to come outside and take your order. Days later we would visit and have milkshakes. Mine was a peanut butter variety that consisted of soft ice cream and a scoop of peanut butter, so thick it barely came out of the straw.

We stop to look at The Great Stone Face at Pennington Gap, a mountainside resembling a profile looking out into the distance of the snaking river. I later find out there's another awful name for the formation, a reminder that this land may have seen great moments but also had its share of pain.

It's interesting to see that most people in the area essentially look to be of Scandinavian, Germanic or British/Irish ancestry. There was an entire culture formed around "melungeons", the origin of the word allegedly being that of the french "melange" or mixture. They are now seen as a tri-racial group of people, a mix of African, Iberian and Native American who for the longest time were segregated in their own communities. Legends and rumour abounded of their origins, from the lost tribe of Roanoke to extraterrestials. Completely ignoring of course, the entire conceit of the United States as a country of immigrants.

I am always fascinated by the other, or what is seen as exotic. That people with the same mix of blood running through them as me (although granted, my mother's French ancestry makes me a little less swarthy and in my travels I've been able to fit into the box of non-descript European) would be given a status of mistrust, legend and segregation is a powerful idea, and one that in the area seems to be for the most part over.

We arrive at Big Stone Gap and visit the state-run liquor store. The alcohol laws here are strict, and it amuses me that bullets are more readily available in supermarkets than alcohol. Although John wisely points out, alcohol and ammunition are not a great mix. I am carded and denied wine in a restaurant due to forgetting my passport, and a few days later we are told that although we can buy beer and alcopops, wine is only available via a four mile drive into the next state. A juxtaposition to our travels through Morocco, where alcohol is prohibited but more than readily available to tourists with money. At least America seems to be sticking to its bizarre principles.

Our tour of Big Stone Gap would put any Hollywood tour to shame, and my ego cannot wait for the movie to be released so I can show off to anyone who cares to listen. Carlene shows us the pharmacy, church and baseball field, all locations in the play. Just to make your head spin even further, the book dramatises a real account of Elizabeth Taylor choking on a chicken bone while visiting Big Stone Gap, and the baseball field is used as the setting for the fictional parade in her honour.

The best part of our visit is peering through the gates of the June Tolliver Playhouse, an open-air theatre where The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine is staged each season. As Carlene explains the part of the film where the location is used, the woman in charge of the place happens to walk in and invites us to look around. The playhouse is spectacular in its simplicity, with a large painted backdrop of what is the real mountain view behind it, and planety of trees to capture the mountain feel of the play.

A couple of days later we are sat in the audience to watch the play, and as the person who has travelled the furthest to see it, I am called up to the stage and given a gift. It is a fairy stone, a natural phenomenon of a cross-shaped piece of rock with bearing the legend that when the fairies heard that Jesus had died, they wept, and their tears turned into these stones. In yet another moment of synchronicity, the woods where this supposedly happen and the fairy stones belong is close to John's father's home, which we will be visiting in a few days.

For being an amateur local production, the play is excellently acted and a lot of fun. It borrows from the Pygmalion myth (AKA My Fair Lady), with an educated man from the city falling for a young mountain girl and educating her so she can seek a better life. It has action, drama, comedy and great music. A teenaged girl with a banjo sings during the interlude, and I can only think that if she was transported to London and sang in cafes, the hipsters would eat her up and she'd be on the main stage at Reading festival by the time the year was out.

I'm invited back on stage, along with John, during the court scene, where we act as members of the jury. It's great fun to be up there and afterwards we receive a certificate for taking part. When the play is over, a little girl who was part of the runs up to me and asks if I am really from London. She squeals with delight and asks if I watch Doctor Who. Her bag is emblazoned with TARDIS and Adventure Time badges. Another little boy tells me the cast can sign my programme, which is a thinly veiled way of telling me he wants to sign it. I tell him he was the best thing in the play, and he tells me he dreams of living in London.

At some point I forgot what it meant to have been in a small town, away from the rest of the world, with only the television and books showing me a greater world outside, where men who flew and time travelled symbolised an escape, a place where dreams happened and there was infinite possibility. I watch the bare twinkling lights of sparsely placed houses on the way home through the darkness, and smile at the bow that has looped around the ribbon that is my life.

- Jonathan Pizarro.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Virginia Is For Lovers - America Part 3

I had been hesitantly expecting six foot drops and rapids, especially after the rain. We'd sat on the porch the previous evening, watching the rain come down while I rocked in a chair with dogs at my feet. This was a dream I had somewhere, some literary fever where all I'd ever wanted was a house in the mountains and endless whispering trees.

Now we are drifting down a river in a canoe, in a valley practically untouched by history. It was easy to throw a thread out to the past and see those that came before transported down the river. There is no sound but the Earth itself, practically the slow turn of it, while the birds call out in the trees and the water carries us down. I do not want to be anywhere else, and there is nothing else. There is no London, no traffic, no deadlines or triple shot caramel skinny machiattos.

We'd travelled up from Atlanta and watched the landscape turn greener, the roads smaller. From time to time we stopped to put the top on the car up or down dependent on the intensity of the summer showers or the sunshine. We pass signs promising mythology, a half hope we could turn left towards Nashville, or Memphis. We save it for another trip.

We pass Knoxville and its fabled Sun Sphere, a remnant from the World's Fair known mostly to global consciousness as a beaten-up relic in The Simpsons. The reality being it gleams on the Knoxville skyline as we glide past it in our silver Mustang.

We stop at a Food City just outside Knoxville and John comments that small-town supermarkets won't have too much stuff, so if we want to we can go to the Walmart closer to his family's home. I walk into a fairly large supermarket which has a fruit and vegetable selection that would put any British megamarket's to shame. The gluten-free section takes up an entire aisle. Compared to our local supermarket, which may I point out is in one of the world's busiest rail stations, this is heaven. Victoria Station's supermarket has four gluten-free shelves, hidden away and embarassed, offering two packs of gluten-free biscuits and a white gluten-free loaf the size of a normal sized slice.

Had I been in a less disciplined part of my life, I can see how I would have gone crazy with want in America. Once we head to the Walmart, towering above a hill with nothing else in sight, my brain practically splits in half. Here is a supermarket that would comfortably house the entire population of Gibraltar (or as John points out, Lee County), open 24 hours and offering basically everything you could ever want or need at any hour of the day or night. What's more, it is basically situated in what could be constituted as the middle of nowhere.

Days later, on the way back from Big Stone Gap, we test out the theory and visit the store at 11pm to purchase an electric sharpener, a pack of pencils, a bottle of wine and a bag of salad. Don't ask.

To romanticise, we do pass Jonesville (which I continue to call Jonestown by mistake, my childhood submerged in reading about religious genocide) and John gives me the tour of the little Appalachian town. Population approximately 900. It practically hits the beats of my own childhood, and I feel heartened that a little Mediterranean boy and a little Virginian boy can share a similar experience. There's the house that caused Satanic panic in the 80's, the school, the church. Life seems far more peaceful here, we hardly see a person outside, compared to the sardine tin chatter and navigation that Gibraltar presents.

The path to the family home is pure Superman Kansas. A small winding road leads to a sudden burst of infinite blue sky, a large wooden house towering above cornfields giving way to the breeze. (Days later we'll see a deer peer out from the stalks and bounce along the road.)Then a tilting gravel path down the valley to a barn that would be comfortable in any 70's rural horror movie and a drive leading up to a beautiful home.

John's mother, Carlene, and her partner Vera sit on the porch I will be so enamoured of in the next few days, while four dogs bark and jump and bound towards our car. Three statuesque weimeraners and a little beagle-dachshund doing her best to catch up behind. Despite the towering authority of the three other dogs, Sissy is the boss. She is also my favourite, Bette Midler in dog form.

Carlene and Vera's home is everything every luxury holiday company and mouse-eared theme park has tried their best to market as a real American South and miserably failed to do, because what they always miss is the warmth, honesty and lack of stereotype that this entails. It reminds me of Southern Spain, and the fact that everyone thinks I take siestas, eat paella and go to see a bullfight every afternoon. That everyone who speaks with the Spanish accent I share is an uneducated farmer with missing teeth. Nevermind that Andalucia is a hub of culture and history. Nevermind Lorca, Manuel De Falla or Picasso. Likewise here. Nevermind The Carter Family, Daniel Boone or John Fox Jr.

The kitchen is expansive, and I am jealous. I covet it. The walls are dotted by Picassos and Dalis. The mounted deer heads remind me of holidays up in the mountains in Spain, where the reality of hunting is not what PETA would have you believe, and something that has happened since time immemorial until such a point when meat was consumed from little plastic trays and everyone forgot what it means to connect to the land.

I am at home. I feel wrapped up in a quilt, like the seconds on my watch tick a little slower, if at all. I am dispelled of the myth that there is not much to do, and the promise of canoeing, visits to Big Stone Gap and drive-ins peak my interest.

Which is where we are days later, after the rain. Floating down a river looking at a landscape of pioneering. This is the first state after all, a land of promise and discovery and secrets. Our journey downstream is celebrated on a wooden deck, looking out at the river and mountains while we eat catfish and salad with my beloved ranch dressing, served by incredibly well-mannered young girls, a world away from the sour faces of London restaurant service. The sweet tea in enormous tumblers instantly refilled, making me vow to never touch another bottle of Nestea again.

- Jonathan Pizarro.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Where For Art Thou Rick Grimes? America Part 2

Atlanta feels like the end of the world.

It's almost eleven at night by the time the taxi winds its way through Atlanta. After an airport that feels more like a bus station and the immense orange glow darkness of the stretching freeway, the city appears like a constellation of glass and steel.

The air is thick, like the sun stored itself up in everything and is now escaping through the pavement. There's a tension I can see through the window as the car speeds its way through the centre. It adds to my disorentation, my fever dream of a place that is more foreign than anything I have ever seen, yet intimately familiar. My mind and reality are at battle in my head, and I am also weary from travel.

The city from afar looks like Gotham, a testament to industry. The streets feel like Gotham too, everything filtered through my mind on a screen or a page. I have spent my life studying America, it is the structure of all my creative notion. Or maybe I've just watched too much Walking Dead, the series Atlanta is now famous for.

Have you ever felt an entire city's tension? We step out of the car to people hanging on street corners, jumping on walls and generally looking like they're about to cause trouble. John assures me it's not normally like this, there must be some event going on. We find out the next morning it was the Car & Bike Show, notorious for always causing the city to pour over. The tension is even palpable in our hotel, in the elevator a woman screams at a member of staff as they threaten to call security.

Maybe 2001 really affected me, but I feel hermetically sealed inside the hotel and I never want to leave. It's close to freezing with the air conditioning on everywhere, and the darkness outside seems like a smoke monster, hitting the floor to ceiling windows and sliding down in oppressive humidity.

I taste my first ranch salad, served in a bowl the size of a satellite dish, and experience Southern hospitality. Everyone is attentive, polite and missing that invisible barrier that keeps you from talking to strangers. In London you keep your head down and acknowledge people only with a breathless "sorry" if the smallest part of your fabric touches theirs. American openness may be mocked elsewhere, but it seems genuine and lovely to me.

The next morning we walk down what feel like secret stairs, from reception to CNN Center, which is connected to the hotel. The hallway opens up into the courtyard of a thriving business hub and testament to all things Turner. A practically infinite elevator leads up to an enormous globe, like a set piece from Journey To The Moon. This is where the constantly busy CNN Inside Tours start. Next to it is an Orwellian television screen tuned into CNN. Right next to what is labelled as the CNN Store but is really the Time Warner emporium, a giant statue of Finn from Adventure Time looms over visitors.

Choice is practically infinite, from the rows of fast food establishments offering breakfasts that are deep fried, breaded or covered in chocolate. Not so infinite for a gluten-free diet, which is also part of the reason I am probably the only person who went to America for two weeks and came back thinner. We choose a restaurant that promises fresh and healthy breakfast, and I am awed when I am returned change from $20 after paying for two omelettes, an orange juice and coffee. The omelettes are mountains, and the coffee is unlimited. I can't remember the last time this Mediterranean boy left food on a plate.

It's still hot outside, but that cloying sense of danger has disappeared to make way for a bright, sunny and generally quiet day. Atlanta is mostly a centre for business it seems, with no real heart of the city in which to shop or socialise. We walk to the Coca Cola museum, which once we have arrived seemed like a better idea than the reality. WIth no pressing desire to queue amidst screaming children to be sold a corporate dream, we head to the airport to pick up our rental car.

Surely the entire principle of the American dream is to travel the country in a convertible. John has chosen a sleek little Mustang, and I made a dozen mixtapes full of the perfect music to speed along the highways of the American South. With the sun beaming on us and Dolly Parton singing about home, we travel outside Atlanta to visit our friends in their beautiful home, and my first taste of a Wal-Mart.

- Jonathan Pizarro.

Friday, 1 August 2014

On The Run: America Part One.

I am carrying my belt and bag in one hand, with the other clutched desperately to my iPad and a clear bag of toiletries. I tear through the seeming narrow expanse of Philadelphia airport with an inability to process the fact I am now in America.

My flight was delayed by two hours, prompting my connecting flight from Philadelphia to Atlanta to be at the bottom of an hourglass I am desperately trying to swim through. I spent the entire flight from London to Philadelphia concerned with both my hydration and the fact I am probably going to miss my flight to Atlanta.

Going through immigration angry is not ideal. I step from foot to foot, gingerly offering my digits and my whereabouts for the next two weeks. I am offered an alternative route by a sassy Southern belle sat at a makeshift plastic table where everyone is groping for their rerouted flight tickets with all the zeal of the Hunger Games. Mine says I can go to Charlotte, and then catch another flight to Atlanta, arriving shortly before midnight. The time between those flights is about twenty minutes. No, thank you.

"Can I still make the flight to Atlanta?", I breathlessly implore of a check-in attendant at what is possibly the most mercifully empty check-in desk I have ever seen. Either Philadelphia is being used for the next 28 Days Later film or the universe really loves me.
"Honey", she raises her eyebrow at me, "you better run".
I give her my bag and another woman sat on a chair motions for me to run in the right direction. I wave my thank yous as they holler at me to go.
My God, I have turned into Hugh Grant.

I don't even remember getting through security. I don't even know if I did for sure. All I know is that it has taken me half an hour to get from one plane to the next, and I am now on board a flight to Atlanta. I am too tired and overwrought to think, move or fall asleep. I spend the entirety of the flight sat bolt upright, wondering if what just happened actually happened.

To add to the surreal absurdity of the situation, I am sat next to a man who in my daze I am convinced is Cee-Lo Green. I don't think it helped that I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on the plane from London (followed by Julie And Julia. To this moment, I am equally obsessed with Julia Child and haunted by black monoliths on Jupiter).

He makes very extroverted talk about his nightmare day (he was stranded in Philadelphia airport for a few hours) and I offer him my story. This is my first culture shock. Why is this man talking to me? In London people sit next to you and offer a polite breathy "sorry" every time you hit their elbow by accident.
"Man, you're from London! Is that England, right? It's not in France?"
I smile, the view from this side of the world is charming for the Euro-centric traveller. After all, to his credit, how many Europeans could point out Atlanta on a map?

We talk about Kim and Kanye's wedding in Paris and he tells me I should visit New York, amused that he feels the need to point out the sights, like I haven't been raised on a steady diet of Sex And The City and Spider-Man. ("There's this street called Fifth Avenue" he explains, "very good for shopping").

It turns out he's obsessed with European fashion, as evidenced by his enormous red PVC Versace trainers. His equally large gold Jesus face on a cross would make the Pope cry with jealousy. It turns out he's going to Atlanta for a family reunion, and to organise some work.
"I'm a tour manager, for some rappers".
I don't think he expects the rap conversation to go any further with a little Mediterranean boy and his messed up accent on the way to Atlanta.
"What rappers?" I ask.
"Oh" he says, "They're American rappers. They're called 2 Chainz and French Montana".
My eyes almost burst out of their sockets. "I love them!"
He seems amused. "You know them in London? Cool!", and he contentedly settles to nap.

I lean back into my chair and beam. I am definitely in America now.

- Jonathan Pizarro.