Month five: Adventures in the deep South

This month was the first in a while where I heard ‘Why would you want to go there?!’ about some of my destinations. But visiting the American South was one of the parts of this trip I was most excited about, and it didn’t disapoint.

Some of these places I wanted to visit to get a taste of a different kind of life. The accent, music and food also contributed. Some I just booked tickets to based on recommendations from other travellers.

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I faced two big fears; navigating US roads, and doing stand up comedy. I met some wonderful people Couchsurfing.

Although I’ve loved a lot of it, this has also been one of the months I have found the hardest; I’ve felt emotionally fragile, and, at times, insubstantial.

Places visited: Texas (Austin, San Antonio), Louisiana (New Orleans), Mississippi (Jackson), Tennessee (Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville), North Carolina (Asheville), Georgia (Savannah), South Carolina (Charleston), Washington DC

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Modes of transport: Megabus, Greyhound, Amtrak, taxi, car, truck, bike (eeek!)

Favourite things: all of Austin, making friends in New Orleans, listening to bands in Nashville

Worst things: Struggling to find accommodation, camera lead finally giving up the ghost, that night where I may or may not have been sitting in a recent crime scene (homicide)

Books read: Dark Tower 2 & 3, The Long Winter, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Program

Illness and Injury: homesickness/stress, mosquito bites

Things I miss most: British sense of humour, drinking Pimms in beer gardens on sunny days, people getting excited about summer, road signs that actually make sense, COOKING

Items bought: New watch, books, soap, tynelol, headband, toothpaste, moisturiser

Items lost: My watch.  Having to carry my travel clock around in my pocket like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

Interesting/amazing food: The south was the first place I experienced truly good food in America. Until July I had been significantly underwhelmed.

I have tried catfish poboys, grits and delicious cornbread. Barbeque in Memphis, fried chicken the way its meant to be done. Great apple pie and a range of insane deserts. Coca cola cake. Birthday cake flavoured ice cream. Oh yes, that’s a thing. Sweet tea. So many sweet things. Breakfast all day.

I ate particularly well in Charleston, if anyone happens to be heading that way.

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American shops/ restaurants visited: Jack in the Box, Walmart (terrifying!!), Sonic (drive in diner), Trader Joes

Up next in my sixth and final month, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. I fly home on the 6th of September.

Learning to cook

If you’d have asked me a few years ago whether I’d like to spend six months eating out every day, the answer would have been a resounding yes.

And if I’d had to choose between having a (hypothetical) cleaner,  chaffeur, or chef, I would always pick the chef.

I never really got the way other people enthused about food. Some food was nice, and some (a much larger category) was not. You ate to survive, and that was that.

But now, somehow,  that has changed. One of my favourite things to daydream about are the meals I’m going to make when I get home.

I wander supermarket aisles wistfully, remembering a time when there were no constraints on what I could make, just the limits of my imagination.

The force with which I miss cooking has surprised me. I yearn for markets where I can buy a single carrot, exactly one chicken breast. Cooking for one in America is a huge challenge. The emphasis here is on bulk; as large a quantity as you can load into your oversized car.

Lamb, real sausages, pints of milk. Parsnips. Roasting and chopping and mixing. I want to make my own burgers again, to knead dough and sprinkle breadcrumbs.

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I was lucky enough to be able to use a Couchsurfing host’s kitchen.  I spent over an hour making vegetarian cornish pasties,  making a huge mess. I wasn’t even particularly hungry.  It was a Friday night.

I think it’s one of the most joyful things I’ve done.

My tastes are still limited, but they’re expanding all the time. I am less afraid to try. I reach for food as colourful as my favourite houses, fresh and bursting with life.

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That time I did impromptu standup in Asheville

I never intended to perform at the comedy night. A few hours earlier, I’d been lying in bed, feeling tired and headachey and slightly sorry for myself.

But the night was free and right around the corner; I thought I’d go and see how different American comedy was.

After about four acts had been on, I started thinking that maybe I could do it. That maybe there would never be a better time to try it; I didn’t know anyone there, and I was leaving in the morning.

I bought a glass of wine to stop the shaking and jotted a few notes down.

Then, all of a sudden, I was being introduced as a comic and welcomed to the stage. I talked about some mildly funny things that had happened on my trip to the states.  I remember being proud that my voice sounded normal. I filled my time, people laughed. There was some clapping.

Stand up comedy is one of those things I always wanted to do, but thought I would always be too scared to. I was scared, but I tried not to think about it.

Straight after my set (get me, I have sets now), a kindly woman from Jersey bought me a drink. I’m not sure if it was out of pity,  or if she just fancied me, but I was glad of the support regardless.

I don’t think I was terrible. For something thought up on the spot, I think I did alright.

Afterwards, I felt so alive,  my cheeks still pink from the embarrassment of talking in front of a (dwindling) crowd. It’s the same feeling that dragged me up all the way to Macchu Pichu, that saw me mountain bike down The Most Dangerous Road in the World. I wasn’t necessarily well equipped for any of these things, but I did them anyway, because I assumed that I could.

Restaurant culture: a comparative study

In many parts of Latin America, you can sit for a good hour before anyone in the restaurant even deigns to acknowledge your existence.

So when I landed in California, I was wordlessly thankful for the fast service and over-attentive staff. The concept of taking food home in a box was novel and charming; it was also good for the planet and my bank balance, effectively allowing me to turn one meal into two.

But I have yet to be offered a dessert menu. And I eat out the vast majority of the time.

To my mind, a meal out in the evening should last about an hour, or longer if you are with company. The American ideal, by contrast, appears to be about 20 minutes.

Being given the check (bill) before you have finished eating strikes me as rude, despite servers assurances that it is for “whenever you’re ready”. A demand for payment is not easily ignored though; it sends a message beyond the immediate. It insinuates that you should leave, and soon. Put your food in a box to take home,  pay quickly and vacate your seat. It suggests that the waiter is done serving you.

I may be being cynical here. But I do think it’s part of a wider cultural prevalence for speed over almost anything else. Don’t Americans ever want to sit and enjoy a meal? Slowly?

To a European (and in mainland Europe this is even more pronounced), food should be savoured. There is time to think, and talk, and digest. You do not feel as if you have outstayed your welcome.

The Latin lateness irritated me at times, but the American extreme goes far too far the other way.

A pilgrimage

Arriving in Nashville felt like coming home. In sharp contrast to Memphis, the climate actually made you want to be outside as much as possible; to feel the warm sun and luxuriate in a balmy breeze.

Music, and cowboy boots, are everywhere.

And the bands are just so good. I could sit listening in bars here for days.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash museums made for very entertaining visits, the city is nicely walkable and everyone you meet seems to be happy to be here.

But the absolute highlight of my time in Tennessee (and possibly my entire Stateside trip) is taking a visit to Dollywood.

That’s right; Dolly Parton ‘ s theme park/ cultural centre and museum. There really aren’t words to describe how I feel about this, so I’ll just say that I’m buying two new bus tickets, spending a night in Knoxville and blagging a ride to the tiny, touristy town of Pigeon Forge, as well as spending less time in my beloved Nashville, just to go.

I have no doubt that I am about to have an outrageously good time.