© Natalia Atkins

To the big U - S of A

December 16, 2017

(This is an old story from when I travelled to America in 2015 - after I finished university - now I feel really old!)

 

Finishing university is a big step, the door of education closes and real life is meant to begin - in order to let this information sink in, planning an adventure became as essential as finishing my degree.

A place I’ve always been interested in but never had the opportunity to visit was the States, the big USA. Some people see it as the dominant objective force of power, others a big consumer and perhaps some, a good holiday resort. My own thoughts were filled with interest, American culture surrounds us, its on our TV and computer screens, in our diet and in our politics. So many varied opinions are formed on America and its people. My own thoughts were both negative and positive, perhaps slightly leaning towards negative due to bad political moves or close minded people, but never to judge a book by its cover, a journey was planned, with a sense of open mindedness to what I might discover.

 

Having friends internationally definitely helped, not only to plan the journey, but also giving an insight to their culture and their part of the world - it also added more destinations on the map. 

So Toronto in Canada became the first stop. Two good friends lived here and agreed to take me under their roof. Toronto had a good atmosphere, people are genuinely so nice, walking down a street I was greeted by many individuals asking “hows your day” and “good afternoon!”, me being a londoner and used to quiet sighs or a sneeze as conversation, quickly got comfortable with greeting passers by. Toronto was very small and I imagined it to be a smaller version of New York city. I managed to see some good music out there - both James Blake and a canadian group called ‘Purity Ring’, and became more familiar with the term “consumerism”. North America is obsessed with consumerism, one thing I definitely got more familiar and irritated by more throughout the trip. One canadian in particular I spotted at the concert took a photo on her iphone, chose a filter, posted it on Instagram and then checked other people’s posts - missing a good half an hour of the gig and what she paid for! It’s a similar culture in London as well, but I quite often found myself surrounded by people constantly updating status’ or images to social network sites.  Sometimes they would be more obsessed with their online profile rather than interacting with the real world and whats around them. 

 

I got pretty comfortable in Toronto; saw Niagara Falls, wondered around aimlessly with my head in the clouds. After leaving London pretty abruptly when my degree finished, it gave me a chance to relax and also decide where I would go. I managed to find some cheap flights and planned a little circuit; New York city (I had a friend who was staying there for a few days), Washington DC, Chicago, Boston and then back to New York City to catch my flight home. Boston, I knew some friends there and the first trip to New York I had a friend there, but apart from that I knew no one, and America was proving to be a pricey place so I quickly created a profile on couch surfing - hoping the kindness of strangers would make my trip worth while and affordable.

 

 

 

Arriving in New York for the first time, I exited the bus station and felt overwhelmed by the city, taxi’s everywhere, advertisements for everything you could imagine; from milkshakes to the latest dramas, people of all sorts, shouting, screaming, laughing - a man asking me for money, buildings overshadowing me, it all felt very overpowering and learning from carrie of sex and the city, I pulled out my hand to grab a taxi and take me to my friends house. Arriving on a friday night, she quickly told me a big night was planned, heading out to the hip and cool Brooklyn, with a load of her New York friends - all of which were fellow Berliners (if I forgot to mention she is from Berlin), as she had discovered most New Yorkers had an unwelcoming tone to them, so bonded with whom she knew best - people from her hometown. We managed to have an “awesome” night as Americans might say and left the club when it closed at 6am, when standing outside a police car drove past and asked if we just left the club, replying worringly “yeah?!” he simply stuttered, “that’s awesome, man!” So American, I thought. A group of us then made our way back to a friends house, who was staying in an amazing apartment on upper east side - paying a cheeky sum of $6,000 a month, and living by himself - filled with a dining room, living room, private bedroom and guest bedroom. New York appeared to be the place of success, money and wealth, were if you want to be anything, there is nothing holding you back (expect perhaps expensive rent and living costs, but at that moment those thoughts didn’t quite cross my mind). New York had an atmosphere to it that made you feel powerful, the tall buildings looking down on you, the many well dressed people, the houses you desire to live in - it was a place that I quickly wanted to be a part of. It felt squashed and narrow, a city where you really can’t get a moments peace, even in a park you hear the hustle and bustle of the city, even at 4am their are restaurants open serving late diners, yet its pace of life seems twenty steps ahead, everyone is running around trying to become someone. You don’t stare, you walk fast, you pick up your phone, arrange a meeting, meet people, go places, it has a feeling of desire. But what happens when you get left on the sidewalk - I saw many who seemed absent minded, passed out on drugs, walking with their trousers down by the ankles, face in their hands, unaware to the speed of New York, got lost in the moment and now suffering with the consequences and being dismissed - society no longer wanting to be a part with them. It seems in this city, money defines you. 

 

Making my way to washington DC, I passed through a bit of open American land, where I spotted an American flag on people’s front porches, petrol stations, drug stores, even on a baby’s buggy; it all seemed a bit too patriotic for my liking. It annoyed me as well as if any other country had flags everywhere it would shortly be dismissed - say Germany had German flags everywhere, it would be deemed as supporting neo-nazism, yet as this is America, the all-powerful and all-great it is somehow seemed as acceptable. Arriving in Washington, it was pure bliss, compared to being overwhelmed in New York. People were welcoming and helpful, locals were intrigued by my accent, “get out of town - your from london?” I popped to the White House to have a scheduled meeting with Obama, only to find when I got there,  I wasn’t the only tourist with this thought in my mind. A rather small building to how I originally imagined and not blindingly white, just white. I visited the American history museum and felt like a 5 year old excited by all the new things I was learning, I had no idea America became independent from the UK in 1776. I stood where Martin Luther King gave his great “I Have a Dream” speech in Aug 1963, and stood in front of Abraham Lincoln’s tomb, it felt inspirational, at that moment I felt kind of invincible with my own thoughts and aspirations - if I want something, who is to say I can’t achieve it. The world is filled with corruption and dishonesty and at that moment, overlooking the reflecting pool, with the sky tinted in a dark mist of pink, I was filled with hope and determination that I can and will make a difference.

 

Arriving late at night into Chicago, I was about to undergo many new experiences. Catching a flight from Washington I managed to pick up a local newspaper of Chicago which was pretty much filled with various murders occurring in the city. Never one to trust the media, and always criticising it, it did still cast an image of worry in my mind.  Arriving at my couch surfers home (my first experience) calmed me down, they were chilled and exactly the kind of people I would hang around in my own hometown - open minded, relaxed and could have a good chat with. They gave me the lowdown of the city, explaining the further out you went, the more dangerous and segregated it became. Driving through the west hood definitely communicated this, an area filled with only African-Americans, the guys said they would be worried for my safety (being a white girl) if they left me here. A police car was waiting on every corner, anticipating trouble, waiting for a guy to make the wrong move; there were no signs of a supermarket for two miles - only liquor stores and a few random KFCs, shop windows were all boarded up - it seemed like an abandoned town, a forgotten town. Gangs standing on every corner, old drunk men who seemed to have lost their minds and freewill, women and children rarely seen on the streets - life here had very little to offer. It seemed the only choice you had living here was to become a part of it, there didn’t seem to be an escape route. The city itself wasn’t that far from the west hood, yet the difference in lifestyle and culture was depressing. Police in chicago have a very old school way of thinking, they believe white is superior, quite often having old fashioned views which are both racist and homophobic. When driving around, I casually spotted a Latino guy cycling on his bike, the police brutally pulled him over, knocked him down on the side of his car and questioned him - simply because he was riding a bike and was of colour, and most likely the cop was bored and wanted to get his evening rolling. 

 

 

 

Next stop was Boston, a city so different from Chicago; filled with university campus’, Harvard being the most well known, big houses with accompanying gardens and lots of tea rooms. It felt very pretty but at the same time, unrealistic. After the recent Boston bombings, everywhere I looked I spotted t-shirts with the slogans, “Boston Strong!” A trademark to symbolise they will not be defeated - It felt a little bit dramatic, but I suppose it was a sense of good community spirit . I met some locals, and bonding over a boozy lunch we decided to venture out to Maine for a weekend, a state in New England, to shoot a music video for an up and coming artist, Liz Turner, it seemed a great location located next to the Atlantic Ocean (a shame the entire weekend was raining!). All hangover on the actual day of shooting,  we all took our roles very seriously - chatting to her mum, giving confidence to Liz and her co-actors and creating props out of plastic cups and balloons. Celebrating the success of the shoot, we headed to the local bar/club in Maine were I was treated like a celebrity for my British accent was rare amongst them, often in exchange hearing bad imitations or remarks on “cups of tea”. 

Returning back to New York, I stayed with a Jazz singer in Brooklyn. Taking me to underground jazz bars and introducing me to blues like I had never heard before, I became obsessed by the saxophone and clarinet - the tones and styles that came out of the instrument blew my mind! When the band all gathered and spontaneously broke out, everything meshed together, you felt the passion, the rawness of the instrument and the soul. Sipping a whisky and ice, it seemed the perfect drink for an occasion of Jazz, these nights continued to 6am, a collection of musicians who came to play a 'jam’, playing what they felt fitted with relation to other instruments and beats, interrupting with a sudden, dramatic solo. When I opened my eyes, Jazz was everywhere - on the subway, by the drug store, playing in a cafe, individuals playing the clarinet whilst strolling down the street, a woman cooly singing Ella Fitzgerald, it was this scene of lust and passion, a total variation from the daytime in the city.

 

Shortly coming towards the end of my journey, I started to miss my home. I missed my fellow British accents, the American one had started to annoy me. America is a place of ambition, when your there you feel anything is possible, people are so desperate to get in - customs are so specific to who they dislike and who they like, they have the power to boot you out of their country yet people will beg on their knees to get in. Yet when there, people are still segregated by their cultures and not interacting with Americans, they’re not there to communicate with its people or understand its culture. They want a piece of the puzzle; they want the fame, the lifestyle, the success but more than anything they want the money. 

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