Thursday, 25 September 2014

Mister Palazzo Goes To Washington - America Part 7

There was a moment when I was visiting Rome and walked into the ancient forum. Less than a sense of history, in the sense of "this is the way people lived then", I caught a powerful feeling of the man who had walked into this building, sat down and made the world what it is today. I had the same feeling at the Coliseum, a structure that above all others has shaped the way we see the world in term of real life and entertainment. So basically, you do have the Romans to thank for the Kardhashians.

It is a cliche to compare America to the Roman empire, but that doesn't mean that it is not an accurate depiction. Moreover, Washington DC as a city structure reminds me far more of large European cities than it does of other American cities. If you want to see the modern world as it put one hand in front of the other and pushed itself out of the mud, there is a walk you can take around Washington DC. If Virginia had the pioneering spirit, this city is what happened after the land was tamed.

The European influence is interesting, and I guess unavoidable. The city builders of the 18th and 19th century have a tremendous boner for classical architecture. It seems the height of intellectual and cultural advance is an ionic column.

After visiting the outside of the White House, I am at first shocked at how close the gates are to the front door (the movies make it look so far away) and then amused at how European the architecture of the leader of a people so proud to break away from Europe is. We see the roads closing to allow cars to pass into the building, as helicopters whizz around the river, a sense that Washington DC is not based around some stately home granted token power, but a city functioning fully to keep the cogs turning. If Virginia is perhaps the heart of America, then Washington DC is definitely the brain.

The White House is the full stop in our day's journey, by which point we have weary feet and educated minds. We start our day in the heat, grateful for the air conditioning prevalent in every building. A brief highlighted tour of the Guggenheim art museum and Air & Space museum. How about that, a brief tour of some of the world's greatest breakthroughs and milestones.

The National Mall is indescribable. A stretch from Congress to the Lincoln Memorial, punctuated by the Washington monument and the reflecting pool. John's mother later tells us it gives her chills whenever she visits Washington DC, and I get exactly what she means.

There are memorials for practically everyone, and they are all beautiful. We visit the Jefferson Memorial, a Pantheon tribute by the river overshadowed by the more popular Lincoln memorial but possibly more beautiful. President Franklin Roosevelt had all the trees cut down between the White House and the Jefferson Memorial so he could look at it every night. How could you not? All of America's ideals and reasons for existing encapsulated in under one dome. There are large stone enravings on the wall, underneath those are stone benches, where I sit and John takes a photo. It is possibly my favourite photo of myself, beneath the powerful words commanding "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

Onwards to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial, a pretty and expansive series of walls and statues showing a man who lived through the Depression and led America through a world war. There is even a statue dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt, with rays of sunshine bursting through the branches overhead, the memorial feels entirely utopian.

The next memorial is dedicated to Martin Luther King, one of my childhood heroes, and it feels entirely fitting to see some highlights of his powerful words carved into rock while a statue of Dr. King appears to be carved out of a stone and pushed forwards, propelling him towards the bright future he bestowed upon everyone.

The Vietnam memorial is sombre, a long row of names on black marble. I even find a couple of Pizarros, with a phonebook sized guide helping to identify loved ones. To attach a life to each of those names, with the endless possibilites that are cut short by bullets and bombs. To delve further into that thought would be paralysing.

The Einstein memorial is infinitely more joyous, a burst of constellations at his feet, the smallest dot depicting Earth's place in our vast universe. It is a warm tribute to discovery and intelligence.

The Lincoln Memorial is busy and chaotic, as with most popular attractions there is little respect placed to the intention of the memorial by its visitors. There are signs calling for respect and silence, but they are ignored. Children are screaming, people are taking selfies by the oversized seat of the President.

We find a quiet-ish spot on the steps and look out to Congress, where we started the day. These steps, the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech. Looking out onto the National Mall where thousands of people flooded to hear him speak and change the world. Overlooked by the President who abolished slavery. Chills, there is no other way to describe it.

- Jonathan Pizarro.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Blue Ridges & White Houses - America Part Six

John's father lives in Virginia, so we drive from state to state in a way that would get you halfway across Europe. The scale of things is something I have not yet grasped, as an eight hour drive where I grew up could leave you in another country, with another language and completely different way of life. In fact, if you are willing to get on a ferry you can be on another continent.

To drive and drive and still see the same stores, the same culture is astounding. As we make our way to John Sr.'s house we are greeted with such a beautiful view we stop the car to take the look. The mountains are sweeping and sparsely inhabited. You could get lost in them forever and that is something equally terrifying and tempting.

There's this idea of sanctuary, and one of those places for me is now Virginia. You almost don't want to live there, because if you do there would be nowhere to escape to in your mind when daily life gets too much. Or perhaps living there means daily life won't get too much, maybe one day I'll find out.

John Sr.'s house is almost a secret, surrounded by trees so green there's nothing to compare them to but themselves. The home itself is the way Tolkien described hobbit homes, warm and dry and intensely comforting. Maybe it's the tiredeness from the travelling, but I can melt into the sofa and feel entirely at home.

The back of the house opens out into a porch on a hill, looking out onto a pond, vegetable patches and sweeping up into the Blue Ridge mountains, which look very blue against the sky as we drink wine all evening, and I am fed chocolate by John Sr., who has discovered my sweet tooth weakness. John's brother Matt joins us for dinner and tells us about his farm. If he lived in London he'd have hipster girls queuing up to date him, it delights me to be presented with the real thing, and not some moustached graduate drinking out of mason jars and keeping a patch of organic sustainable pop-up artisanal potatoes in Hackney.

The next morning we head out through very winding roads to Chateau Morrisette, where Matt works and we are to have brunch. The place is a solid building reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel, providing a restaurant and winery. I'm glad to have dressed up a little, it's the type of place you'd have a fancy and expensive wedding. The brunch is exquisite, and I am sure that if we ever move to Virginia I will get very, very fat.

Later, Matt shows us his work-in-progress farm in Meadows Of Dan, which sounds like the name of a 90's alternative rock band. There's a sense of pioneering and possibility here like nowhere else I've been. When we arrived, we presented John Sr. with a woodcut print of St. Paul's Cathedral from the 1800's, and he was blown away by something from such a long time ago. IN context, The United States was barely a century old. Yet, for all it's sense of newness, there's something else in the air that anywhere else seems worn. I don't know that there are very many people in the United Kingdom in their 30's who are buying a piece of land and putting a farm together bit by bit. There are pipe dreams, and then the people who work hard and literally rub the sweat from their brows to make dreams reality, without the aid of a dozen Polish workers to renovate the farmhouse and build a koi pond to look exotic. It makes me realise I should give my own dreams a little kick up the rear.

We stop by what used to be a mill, and there are a few people walking around the stunningly green grass and admiring the tools workers used to use to make flour and to farm the land. In a clearing, what looks like an amateur bluegrass group have joined together to play some music, while families sit around on blankets and eat their lunch. After the nightmarish music patriotism rally at Dollywood, I am delighted to hear some real bluegrass. It feels like cotton sheets and woven blankets, sweet tea and fireflies. I'm glad that on a Sunday afternoon, a handful of people can get together and make some wonderful music.

We leave the next morning, and I am sad to not be staying longer. This is the last stretch in our silver Mustang, and on the last leg into Washington DC we are jolted harshly back into city life, with lanes and lanes and traffic jams. We pass Arlington Cemetery and The Pentagon. By the time I see the Washington Monument I am ready to get out of the car and explore this city.

Travelling is exhausting, and I have no idea why because all I am doing is sitting in a car and watching scenery. I don't know how John does it, driving and focusing for hours on end, but we get into the city and find our hotel then take our car to the airport and ride the subway, by which point I am ready to drop Washington DC into a box and leave it until the next day.

Everywhere we walk feels like forever, and although it's not as hot as Atlanta the air is still like inhaling steam. We walk to to John's old neighbourhood and I am suddenly very much in love with this city. Our hotel is next to tall buildings and busy traffic, more than America it reminds me very much of Spain. The only other American city I've seen is Atlanta, which has no soul, but John mentions that Washington DC always reminds him of European cities. The tall buildings lead into smaller brownstones, a neighbourhood that looks like Frank Underwood's from House Of Cards. It stands to reason that at the seat of government, this would be an opulent town, although we already passed all the homeless by a square next to the hotel.

We go to what John refers to as the Social Safeway, a supermarket notable for being a place where people went to chat and hook up, of course it's at the heart of Washington's gaybourhood, and it reminds me of the supermarket in San Francisco that Armistead Maupin uses in Tales Of The City. Or Allen Ginsberg's poem A Supermarket In California, with the pervy old bard sneaking a peek of the teenage grocery boys behind the fruit. When I worked in Brighton for a few weeks I frequented a supermarket in Brighton's gay village. It amused me greatly to see leather daddies with their pug doing something as mundane as choosing between cornflakes and Frosties. There's more of the same here, and the last thing I remember is we are served by the hipster staff, who bag our groceries.

I guess we must have gotten back to the hotel, had a hotel room picnic and fallen asleep, with the First Family doing much of the same (minus the hotel picnic I am sure) only a few miles from our room.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

In My Tennessee Mountain Homo - America Part Five

The rain hasn't stopped all day and we've been moving at a slow, painful rate on the way into Pigeon Forge. It looks like Dolly came to stay and everyone moved in too. We are surrounded by what feels like every car in America, on a four-lane highway to nowhere. My only source of amusement is reading the anti-Obama and Tea Party stickers on the back of all the pick-up trucks, and correctly guessing that the driver will be wearing a vest, baseball cap and Oakley sunglasses. Extra points if he has a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and there's a dog beside him. Amusement turns bleak when the reality sets in that these people lead lives with the views they so proudly display on their bumpers.

I am hungry, travel-weary and bored. I am stropping while John keeps the windscreen clear of rain and we work our way through the pack of Lifesavers, our only food source in the car. Then, the road turns flat and a beautiful, tacky, orgy of consumerism opens up before us. Welcome to Pigeon Forge!

On each side of the road are shopping emporiums devoted to summer tourists, promising live sharks, t-shirts and Christian books. There's a knife museum, cramped motels with pools and enormous billboards competing for the main attractions, dinner theatre. This isn't just a case of Medieval Times. We have Lumberjack Wars, Hatfields Vs. McCoys, Biblical Times, Motown and Dolly Parton's very own Dixie Stampede. That's right, you can eat chicken wings while watching Jesus Of Nazareth sing his way through life, death and resurrection.

We begin to pass the buildings devoted to these shows, enormous theme-park structures that are meant to entice you and drop $50 a head. Lumberjack Wars is a giant barn, Hatfields Vs. McCoys looks like a wooden house, with entrances for each warring side and laundry hanging out to dry.

There's not just dinner theatre, but all sorts of museums, rides and attractions. Giant gates lead to a Jurassic Park style adventure. There's an upside down mansion, towering King Kong, and even an enormous replica of the Titanic, complete with iceberg poking out of the side. A Titanic museum in Tennessee. I wonder if years from now we'll have an MH370 plane themed museum.

I guess what's bizarre is that this place was so intent on selling an idea of Americana to Americans who lived in the authentic, and drove up to Pigeon Forge for a slice of history that wasn't really history at all. There was a yearning for mythology, a piece of something that had been brought along on the ships to this new land, and the people who decided not to share in the actual legends that grew from the land many years before they ever settled here. Instead they chose Superman, and Coca-Cola, and reached back further to create entertainment out of a ship disaster, an overblown family feud and a whitewashed Middle Eastern man who walked on water.

Yet I found it all terrific, despite my yearning to simply return to the porch in Jonesville and eat meatloaf until I was sick. The shining beacon in this dreary day came beyond the hotel room, the journey through the drizzle up the mountain, and came with the shiny, effervescent sign that promised a "Welcome To Dollywood". I jumped for joy and raced for the entrance, twelve years old like I'd never been twelve years old in my life. Through the faux Malibu pastels and into the kingdom of Dolly Parton.

The rain did us a favour, and we spent the afternoon walking around, the park practically to ourselves. The Dolly Parton museum is tucked away in a corner, and there was evidence of how busy it can get when signs stated to queue beyond points and form orderly lines. Except we had Dolly Parton and her life story all for us, and I wandered fascinated through photos and costumes and Grammies, finding moment after moment for a kitch yet loving photo, which encapsulates Dolly Parton in her entirety and ampleness.

What struck us was the cheeriness and warmth exuding from the staff. I had only been privy to British theme park staff, normally sullen teenagers at a summer job. As we exited the museum, a female staff member cheerily struck up a conversation with us, asking if we'd loved it. She explained Dolly had come to visit about a month before, and that she had been so gracious and lovely. She looked thrilled to be working there, and she bounded off on her way, a rainbow stream practically emitting from her rear.

Part of the park used to be a Silver Dollar theme park, a Western-style park that John had visited various times during his childhood. It was great to see him reminisce about how the park had expanded, and see how things had just been thinly veiled and renamed to fit into Dollywood. We rode the authentic steam train around the park, and he braved the rollercoaster solo while I hid under my Dollywood umbrella, with no desire to be shot out of anything. We rode a Pirates Of The Caribbean style gold rush ride which John confirmed hadn't been renovated since the 80's, and the sudden dips were enough for me.

Not wanting to miss out on at least a little Pigeon Forge entertainment, we went to watch a show I was expecting to just be a sullen girl on a banjo or some sort of bluegrass quartet. It ended up being a foursome of Broadway rejects high-fiving and whooping their way through a selection of hymns and country music covers. In an effort to appear an America united, the two sassy Aryan chicks were joined by a beefy country dude, a black guy in a cowboy hat, and a man in a wheelchair who the crowd went crazy for. I swear the man in front of me wet his seat. Halfway through, the torture was softened by an upcoming Nashville music star, who was very lovely, until the big finale rolled around and the American flag were paraded around, just in case you missed the point. I decided there and then to lead a better life, because Hell is surely these four singing their Hunger Games national pride anthems for all eternity while I am stuck to a chair.

The evening ended with a spectacular fireworks display fired from those famous Tennessee mountains, with inspirational words from Dolly Parton about looking out at the stars when she was a poor mountain girl. If you can't grasp the point, there is a replica of the house she grew up in, and I use the term house loosely. I cannot fault any earnestness she may continue to display when talking about her life, after seeing what essentially amounts to a hallway as a space to live for about five people. Coupled with the great work she does for charity, and her genuine talent, there's nothing to dislike. I was taken away by the Parton fairies, wrapped up in John's arms watching the sky lit up in Tennessee.