Welcome to my mammoth post on my recent 11 day trip to the US. I didn’t mean to write so much, but this is the result of abandoning my travel journal halfway through the trip. I found occasional moments to write, in the coffee shop in Baltimore and on the train from Washington DC to NYC, but for the most part I didn’t have the time or energy to keep it up. I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t have some kind of exhaustive record of my trip, so this it it. AMERICA. (NB: this song has nothing to do with America)
Apparently no one would visit Baltimore out of pure touristic curiosity – everyone who asked me “Why are you going to Baltimore?” seemed reassured by the explanation that I was visiting friends. I wanted to visit Ryan (who was also an English teacher in Rome, before he returned to the US) and Christian (an Oxford friend who’s now at John Hopkins). Whether I liked the city or not was kind of beside the point. I’d seen a few episodes of The Wire and was aware of the nickname “Bodymore”, which was slightly off-putting, but as long as I planned my trip carefully and avoided dangerous areas, I’d be okay.
Baltimore surprised me. I guess Americans see it differently, but if you’re a European who generally enjoys exploring cities, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. Just as Americans get excited by cities like Paris and Rome and how ~*~European~*~ they are , I got excited by Baltimore and how AMERICAN! it is. Baltimore was the second place I’d ever visited in the US, after NYC, and NYC doesn’t really count because it’s like London in the UK – not really representative of the rest of the country, but rather a cosmopolitan hodgepodge.
I’ll try to stop comparing Baltimore to other cities and just focus on Baltimore. Baltimore. Where to begin? My concern about dangerous neighbourhoods meant that I did my research well, and thanks to some advice from Christian I ended up in one of the nicest Airbnbs I’ve ever stayed in. Panoramic attic with view of the harbour, on the lovely Aliceanna Street, which goes right through the heart of Fell’s Point (generally regarded as one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods in Baltimore). I loved exploring the area, and even just the street. So many great places, from the Indian restaurant Darbar (where I went for dinner, jetlagged yet buzzing, on my first night) to the hipster independent coffee shop Latte’da (which I thankfully found before I reached a Starbucks) to the restaurant Lobo (where I had baked oysters and crab soup, a Maryland speciality).
I loved the aquarium. I balked slightly at the $40 admission fee, but it was totally worth it. So what if I was the only adult unaccompanied by children? (Why don’t adults go to zoos or aquariums?) I spent three hours there but I have easily spent the whole day. Tank after tank of beautiful, weird fish, jellyfish you could touch, dolphins, sharks, a gigantic green sea turtle. The only thing missing was David Attenborough’s narration.
I loved the food. Christian and Ryan took me to some great restaurants, and introduced me to Old Bay and crab cakes. One of my most memorable meals were with Ryan and his girlfriend at Locust Point Steamers, where we ate crab cakes and fries sprinkled with Old Bay while watching diners at other tables demolishing their steamed crabs with hammers and then sucking out the innards. I was too squeamish to try that myself – I grew up a proper vegetarian, and it’s just…a bit too much. Another great meal was crab cakes (again) at Faidley in Lexington Market, a little oasis of tourism and delicious food in the middle of…
….what, exactly? How to describe Lexington Market? The TripAdvisor reviews are a riot.
I think they’re exaggerating, but I suppose it depends on the kind of people who are around at the time of your visit. I saw some people who were obviously up to no good, or completely off their heads, but I didn’t feel personally threatened or targeted. The crab cake was so good it was worth the “risk”. The surrounding neighbourhood is certainly not somewhere you’d want to linger. Walk a couple of blocks to the left and you’d find yourself on the map of The Corner, the book behind The Wire, showing one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Baltimore. But Christian said he’d learned to pick up on the energy of a place – there are some neighbourhoods that are objectively more dangerous than others, but at certain times of day everyone’s pretty calm, and any criminal activity that might be going on is low level or at least not likely to involve any random passers by. But then again, the problem with the US is that any crazy person could have a gun. All it takes is one person, one gun.
Anyway, despite Baltimore’s reputation and my initial worries, I didn’t have any problems. I really enjoyed my time exploring the city with friends, and I think some of my most vivid memories of the trip will be from Baltimore – a sunny day at Fort McHenry, morning walks enjoying the breeze at the harbour, watching the sun go down over the city (to a soundtrack of sirens) from Federal Hill…
I spent two nights in DC, staying in an Airbnb in Trinidad (more on that later), mainly exploring downtown and the area around Union Station. I think the message I sent to Christian while I was there sums it up best:
“Unpopular opinion (and not a very fair one, considering how little time I spent in DC), but I honestly preferred Baltimore. I can see that DC is probably the better place to live, if you can afford it, and it’s pleasant and functional and full of culture, but pretty much everywhere I went downtown just felt bland to me – like a watered down NYC with a generic mishmash of Europe, without the history. At least Trinidad has a bit more character, even if it doesn’t feel as safe! From my perspective Baltimore felt more “American” and therefore more interesting. What I haven’t really found in DC (and this is probably because I haven’t explored beyond the centre) is a real sense of neighourhood – nothing I’d compare with Fell’s Point or Hampden”
I enjoyed my time in DC mainly because I got to hang out with an old friend, Cat. It was only our second time meeting “in real life” – we met as pre-teens on Neopets, stayed in touch online over the years, and only met once in person in London when we were about 15/16. Cat’s from Illinois and is now doing a PhD in Linguistics at Raleigh. I proposed popping down to North Carolina but DC seemed like a better meeting place.
We did the Mall and a large part of downtown. I can’t say we “did” the Smithsonian as no one can in one visit, but we spent a couple of hours at the National Portrait Gallery. We had some great falafel. I think that’s about it. I had one day alone in DC where I walked all over downtown, saw the White House from a distance (underwhelming) and suffered in the swampy humidity. I have mixed feelings about DC’s summer climate. On the one hand, it’s disgusting. On the other hand, at least gives the city more of an atmosphere. Literal atmosphere. Cities with distinctive climates tend to be more memorable. Memories of DC’s cicadas and stickiness will…stick with me.
My Airbnb was in Trinidad, a not-quite-gentrified-yet neighbourhood east of Union station. I had been so obsessed with staying in a safe neighbourhood in Baltimore that it didn’t occur to me to do any research on DC. If you do some online research on Trinidad, you’ll find an alarming number of results about crime and gun violence. Things are getting better, and there are definite signs of gentrification on the edges of the neighbourhood, but Trinidad feels a little bit rough. It’s borderline. Like, “I’ll probably be okay walking here in the daytime as long as I mind my own business, but I’ll get an Uber at night to be on the safe side.”
As for my Airbnb, I need to learn to read between the lines. I always read reviews before I book and have had good experiences so far, but I could have read the reviews a little more carefully. “It is the bare essentials you are paying for! No more than that.”; “Bathroom could have been cleaner. Bed was cozy.”; “This is a very affordable deal, but be mindful that you will only get the bare simple necessities here.”
I sent a picture of the house to a friend in the UK, who commented, “It looks like the arse-end of Salford!”
It’s a bad photo because I took it quickly and sneakily, not wanting to draw attention to myself…
This was the view from my bedroom window:
I made the mistake of sending the picture to Valeriano: “Ammazza amo’ un ghetto…Are you safe?”
I was safe. Although the crayoned scrawl “GUEST ROOM” on the bedroom door didn’t bode well, the room itself was actually fine. Clean, quiet, comfortable. But the sight of the enormous dead cockroach on the kitchen floor was distressing, and I was unsettled by the fact that every available socket seemed to be occupied by an air freshener. What were they trying to hide?
I also had an awkward encounter with my Airbnb host, who lived in the downstairs unit. I was returning to my room after a long, hot day of sightseeing, wanting nothing more than to have a shower and go to bed. The host, J, opened his door when he heard me in the hallway. “I got you a towel,” he said. “Also, why is your friend called Christian?” To explain – I had requested a towel when I checked in, and I had done the check-in with Christian, who had decided to travel up to DC with me before going off and doing his own thing. So J had briefly met Christian.
“Why is your friend called Christian?”
“Er, I don’t know. It’s a common name in Europe.”
“Is he a Christian?”
“What about you?”
“I’m…agnostic. I like to keep an open mind.”
That was the wrong thing to say. For the next 15 minutes I was trapped in the hallway, nodding and smiling (well, more of a grimace) while J talked about God and Jesus and death. I won’t go into the specifics because I don’t remember – I tuned out after a bit – but it was all pretty generic. J had just come back from church and he had that spiritual buzz.
Because I was tired and feeling vulnerable as a solo female traveller in a cockroach-infested house in a dodgy neighbourhood, I overreacted. While he was talking, I was panicking, mentally planning my escape. Could I flee to a hotel room for the night? Could I afford it? Could I get out the house without J noticing? He was probably a harmless religious maniac and I didn’t like to judge people, but my own sense of safety and well-being had to come first.
In the end I convinced myself that just because he was inclined to go on religious rants to strangers didn’t mean that he was a threat. I made my excuses and dashed upstairs. I decided to risk it for one night, and if anything happened, move to a hotel for the second night.
Nothing happened. But thank God – God who may or may not exist (I’m open-minded) – it was only two nights.
(Preamble by Mike Wilkins, Smithsonian American Art Museum)
New York City
I went to New York on a family holiday in 2015 and loved it, so I was looking forward to coming back, revisiting places and exploring some new neighbourhoods. I stayed at an Airbnb on West 144th Street, upper Manhattan, which gave me the opportunity to explore Harlem and Manhattanville, and see a less touristy side of the city.
As a lifelong Lou Reed/Velvet Underground fan, I decided I would make a pilgrimage of sorts to the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th street (“Up to Lexington, 125” – where Lou Reed meets his drug dealer in “Waiting for the Man”). The song was written in the 1960s, and I was fully expecting to find a gentrified area, full of Caroline Calloway types clutching Starbucks cups and a Whole Foods on the corner. What I found was quite different – after walking through the fairly normal, serene streets of Harlem, I found myself in a kind of purgatory. People slumped over in the street, totally out of it, every other person with crutches or a wheelchair, slurred arguments, the smell of urine, some indifferent policemen loitering by the station. This article explains some of the reasons for the intersection’s chaotic atmosphere, including the presence of several homeless shelters, a methadone clinic and the bus stop where newly released prison inmates get off.
While in NYC I mainly just walked and walked. I crossed most of Manhattan on foot, east and west, Central Park, right down to Brooklyn Bridge (where I was coerced into buying a mysterious mix CD from a group of young black men, one of whom assured me, “You’re black really”). I planned to explore Brooklyn more thoroughly, but I’d naively thought of Brooklyn as a single big neighbourhood, rather than a vast city within a city. I also failed to make it to Coney Island (another part of my Lou Reed pilgrimage), because after getting on the subway I realised just how long it would take, and gave up. I got off near Prospect Park, decided to walk across the park, realised how gigantic the park was, and got a Citibike to the other side, where I got the subway back to upper Manhattan. There were times when I felt defeated by the sheer size of the city, which I continually underestimated.
If I had to pick two highlights of my time in NYC, I’d choose Sleep No More and the Metropolitan Museum. I’d always been vaguely interested in Sleep No More (an immersive theatre experience loosely based on Macbeth), but when I met a super-fan whose social life seemed to revolve around the show, I made up my mind. Never mind that the ticket was $100, and the cocktails at the rooftop bar cost $20. I was going to treat myself. And what a treat it was…
Sleep No More is an immersive theatrical experience set in the McKittrick Hotel – an abandoned warehouse transformed into a multi-level theatre space with two themed bars. After my cocktail at the rooftop bar, Gallow Green, I went to get my ticket and my mask, and leave my bag in the cloakroom. Not being allowed to carry your handbag or phone is the most liberating thing – I wish it were a rule in more places. In Sleep No More you’re free to explore the graveyard, bloodied children’s bedroom, forest, asylum, sweet shop and banquet hall without feeling like you have to take a picture of anything. It’s all so beautifully done and atmospheric, from the 1930s decor to the music to the sudden changes in temperature that your normal instinct would be to take out your phone for some pictures and videos. But because it’s not an option you’re free to just…experience. It’s so much fun, like being a child again. Only Sleep No More, with its “scenes with nudity and depictions of violence, sexuality and intense psychological scenarios”, is definitely not suitable for children.
Having been once, I understand why people go again and again. The show lasts something like 2 hours, maybe a bit more, but I heard someone say that there’s 14 hours of material, so every experience is different. One time you might follow Macbeth, another time Lady Macbeth. I’m sure there were rooms I didn’t see, characters I never encountered. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book in theatrical form. Such fun.
I had been to the Metropolitan Museum on my previous trip to NYC, and felt like I should probably try another museum, but then again…I’d been so impressed before, and it’s not like a single trip can do it justice. So I went back. Twice. The $25 ticket gives you entry to the Met for three days in a row. I spent at least 5, maybe nearly 6 hours over a couple of days. I did the Byzantine and Medieval collections, some Greek and Roman art, the Robert Lehman collection, some of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, some European painting, and the temporary exhibition on “Camp” (pictured). I would have seen more, but I literally couldn’t take in any more. It’s an extraordinary collection, and a great museum experience, especially when compared to other big museums like the British Museum or the Vatican Museums. The British Museum is disgustingly overcrowded (because it’s free), and unless you’re clever with booking in advance and going at the right time, the Vatican Museums can also be unpleasant to visit. In the Met I saw so many beautiful things, from Byzantine jewellery to Van Gogh paintings to ritual objects from Papua New Guinea, and I had space. No crowds, no elbowing. Next time I’m in NYC, I’ll be back.
I don’t know if I could live in NYC. Walking around the Upper East Side, I reflected that it must be wonderful if you’re rich. If you’re not, I imagine it being exhausting. It’s so enormous, so expensive. On my last day, I gave my fries and $5 to a man who said he was a veteran from Virginia. “I can’t believe how expensive everything is here,” he said. “$100 just for a hotel room…” Another time, waiting for the subway on 14th street, a smartly-dressed woman brushed her hair while standing literally two inches away from a man sleeping on the platform, his head by a bag of rubbish. I know that when you live in a city, you become somewhat desensitised to poverty and homelessness, but I was shocked by how the homeless man seemed to be literally invisible to her.
Anyway, every city has its problems, my cities (London and Rome) included, so I don’t want to judge. I understand people who adore NYC, and the people who hate it. For the average person to live, I don’t know, but it’s definitely a fantastic place to visit.
I wanted to end with a quote that I saw a few times around the city, but which I may have imagined, because now I can’t find it anywhere online. I could swear that the quote was from John Steinbeck, and that it went something like this: “New York can destroy a man, but if his eyes are open, he’ll never be bored.” I feel like I’m losing my mind, because I can’t find any trace of this quote online. Did I dream it?
Finally, some notes on “cultural differences” – a few things that struck me as being particularly American, or at least different to life I’m used to in European cities. I’m sorry that many of these are negative differences, but that’s just the way I see it.
- Everything is so big. The cars, the roads, and above all the cups. How can you drink a cup of Coca Cola the size of your head and then want a refill? I always asked for a small coffee, and it was always too much – triple the size of any coffee I’ve had in Italy.
- The air conditioning blast. I appreciate a bit of air conditioning now and again, but some rooms and restaurants had the temperature level set to “Arctic”. When I got off the Amtrak train from DC to NYC, my skin actually felt icy. But I suppose some Americans must really suffer from the heat in Europe, with our comparative lack of air conditioning.
- Friendliness. I always defend the British from accusations of being cold and unfriendly, but I have to admit, it’s true. Northerners aside, we are cold and unfriendly compared to Americans. People were especially nice in Baltimore. But…
- Fake friendliness. I think it’s reasonable for shop staff and restaurant workers to ask “How are you?” in a small town, or to chat with a regular customer, but I got impatient with being asked how I was in big city shops and restaurants. It’s not a sincere question. And then I feel obliged to ask you how you are, and you have to answer, and we’ve wasted 30 seconds with a fake conversation.
- Compliments. I got so many nice compliments on my clothes from total strangers. When I was waiting uneasily near the entrance of Lexington Market in Baltimore a young guy stopped and looked at me. I was fully expecting to be catcalled, mugged or offered drugs, and instead he just smiled, said “I like your dress!” and walked on. Compliments are great. The British can be awkward about giving and receiving them, so we could learn from Americans.
- Water in restaurants. Being given iced water as soon as you sit down in a restaurant is very civilised. I’m so over Italy’s obsession with bottled water – tap water please.
- Tipping. I struggle with basic maths, and panicked whenever I was expected to calculate a 20% tip when presented with the bill. I was grateful whenever I encountered one of those swivelly screens that let you choose which percentage to add and do the calculation for you. I prefer the tipping system in the UK, where it’s simpler, or in Italy, where no one really cares.
- Prices before tax. Confusing. You read one price, pay another. Makes everything feel more expensive.
- Public toilet door gaps. Everyone can see you on the toilet, and apparently that’s normal in America. Why? The debate goes on.
- The ubiquity of Uber. Yes, Uber exists in Europe, but it’s not quite the same. In Baltimore I sometimes used Uber multiple times in a day due to the lack of safe/convenient public transport. Which is I suppose is not a great thing. But Uber was invaluable – 2 minutes after you decide you want to go home, a driver in an air conditioned car is there for you. It’s not cheap, but it often feels like good value for the sheer convenience. I’m a convert.
- The ethnic divide. I come from a cosmopolitan city (London) and live in perhaps the most cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Rome, Torpignattara. I know that in any city, there will be areas with a higher than average proportion of a certain ethnicity. What I’ve never experienced in Europe, however, is the stark divide between “black neighbourhood” and “white neighbourhood”. In Baltimore, for example, I was staying in Fell’s Point, which felt overwhelmingly white. In the streets around Lexington Market I was literally the only white person. I was also pretty much the only white person walking the streets in the area around my Airbnb on West 144th street, NYC. I can understand areas being predominantly white, black, Hispanic, whatever. But the way the ethnic mix changed so radically in the space of just a couple of blocks was bizarre to me. The average European city feels much more blended.
- Food deserts. I knew they were a thing, but it was eye-opening to experience it first-hand. I remember walking around Trinidad in DC looking for a shop just to buy a bottle of water – nothing. Or in Baltimore, finally coming across shops selling food, only to find that the shelves of both the 7-Eleven and Royal Farms consisted entirely of junk food. It felt like my only option to eat healthily was to find a Whole Foods. Which I appreciate is not an ideal option for an American who doesn’t live near a Whole Foods, or who can’t afford to shop there. I also had what I’d describe as an almost dystopian experience at the Whole Foods in Baltimore, when I wanted to buy some apples. I bagged them and went to the scales to weigh them and get the price, but there was a label on the machine that said “For Amazon Prime Customers only”. I mentioned this label to a Whole Foods employee. “Don’t you have Amazon Prime?” he asked. “No. I have an Amazon account…” “Then you probably have Amazon Prime even if you don’t realise it.” “But…how do I pay for the apples? Can I just take them to the counter like this?” “Yes.” “Oh. Okay.” Surreal, discussing the status of my Amazon account when I just wanted to buy some fruit.
- Patriotism and gun culture. Two aspects of the US that I find alienating. There’s so much to say I’m not even going to get into it. Let’s just say that they’re the most significant differences and leave it at that.
I’d be interested in hearing people’s opinions, especially from Europeans who live in the US or Americans who live in Europe. What are the differences that you notice the most?