Thursday, 29 September 2011

Back to Blighty

Location: Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, UK
After a really pleasant flight back (with mah own personal mini TV!) I landed at Heathrow and stared rabidly at the immigration man, hoping he'd say "welcome home" in a Jeeves accent, something I'd been fantasizing about for approximately a week. Sadly, he just handed me back my passport back and said "Thanks". Bah.

Anyway, being back in the UK is messing with my head a little. It's hot here - what the?! - and I found I both giggled at a sign for the "Toilets" and struggled with driving on the left. Still, I'm sure a few weeks of near misses on the motorway and hysteria in the loos is all I'll go through till I'm back to normal.

I'd like to thank the academy and my mum, but also everyone who read this blog - it was so great to know people were following my trip and hopefully enjoying some of my antics. If anyone needs any travel tips to any of the places I went, please don't hesitate to get in touch by leaving a comment. I had the time of my life, so I'd be more than happy to pay it forward!

Now for a nice, British gin and tonic...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Atlanta Cyclorama and flying home

Location: Atlanta, GA, USA
I drove into Atlanta after a tearful goodbye to the animals and met Whitney for lunch at Emory University, where she's studying. We ended up nomming tasty French sandwiches in the Highland area of Atlanta, which is a lovely suburb filled with cute-coloured houses and oak trees (it subsequently costs $3,000,000 to live there). Afterwards, we ventured into the far more ghetto (apparently) inner city and bought me an Atlanta Braves baseball shirt (they lost later that day) before meeting up with Rob and heading over to the Cyclorama.

This is one of Atlanta's most famous sites - the Cyclorama is an enormous circular oil painting with a diorama beneath. The scenery-matching diorama blends into the action above making the painting look incredibly realistic, especially in low light. At the museum you learn all about the scenes in the painting (the civil war Battle of Atlanta) as well as a little about life in the army, and you can admire the actor Clark Gable, who, on seeing the Cyclorama after making Gone With The Wind stated the entire thing would be better with him in it. He's consequently depicted as a dead Confederate. I'm not kidding.

Then we had to say goodbye... I was driving to the airport to catch my flight, and Whitney had a test to study for. I'm not sure if it's possible to really show my gratitude for Whitney's hospitality and friendship. She has been incredible and could not have made me feel more welcome if she'd tried. I'll be going back to Atlanta next summer for her wedding to Rob, and can't wait to see her again and help her celebrate!

My own trip to the airport was slightly panicked (in a Rachel way, so I just yelled at the radio) due to rush hour, then baseball traffic and finally not being able to find a petrol station. After some interesting lane changes I got there, though, and proceeded to check in my enormous bag and make a bee line for the bar. Obviously.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Getting ready for home

Location: Lawrenceville, GA, USA
Today I spent mostly packing up stuff to take home and throwing out things I'd planned to chuck (including a pair of ancient trainers which smelt like something died in them two months ago - a distinct possibility as I wore them frequently in Yosemite). Oh, and updating this blog. And singing Brad Paisley songs (it's a sickness).

In the evening, Whitney and I took a very excited Texie to the dog park, then got Thai for dinner. It was SO GOOD, but the company was better. :)

Monday, 26 September 2011

Lawrenceville town centre

Location: Lawrenceville, GA, USA
Whitney and I met up today in Lawrenceville for lunch and a wander so she could show me her home town. We stopped off first in the Cornerstone Cafe, a long time favourite and producer of the legendary "honey butter biscuits". These are Southern scones drenched in melted butter and honey, and are one of the most delicious things I have ever had the pleasure of shove into my cakehole. After the cafe we walked to Rita's iced custard shop. I'd never had iced custard before, but it tastes like ice cream's chubby cousin and as such was frickin' delicious.

Suitably engorged, we strolled around the town square, complaining about the heat like proper Southern ladies. There's plenty of cute little shops, very similar to Berkhamsted in a way; antique/curiosities, interior design, barbers, pubs and restaurants sit next to each other around a central court house with a lovely lawn. In the early summer little fayres and festivals are held there, which must be wonderful.

What's happened to Lawrenceville's exterior, however, is how towns in the UK and USA differ, although we're starting to move in their direction a little, I think. Surrounding Lawrenceville is a sprawl of retailers on little patches of land which you'd really need a car to get to. CVS Pharmacies, fast food, big box grocery stores, mobile phone shops, etc, seem to have taken up on these randomly plotted pieces of real estate and to do your regular chores you go from one mini-estate to the next, rather than parking up and running your errands in a town centre.

There are also a lot of drive thru facilities. You can drive thru at pharmacies, coffee shops, banks (actually a really good idea - much safer than standing at a cash point) and even dry cleaners. My USian friends have been amused when I tell them the only drive thru facilities we have are at McDonald's, and it's still a bit of a novelty.

I'm not sure I like the way the retail is spread out - it is obviously geared towards people with vehicles, and as such doesn't really help poorer people, the elderly or kids get what they need. It's also rather ugly, especially compared with the loveliness of the little town centres which remain in many places. It's really a cultural change, or seems to be, still it's one small negative to a huge range of positives this country offers. What are these positives, you ask?

  • The friendliness - people are sweet to each other in a way people tend to be in the UK north of the Watford Gap. I miss that. There has not been a single time I've been made to feel unwelcome in this country, even if it has meant I've answered a lot of questions about the Royal Family.
  • The food - there could be better veggie options when eating out, but in general it's been absolutely delicious. And I've developed a worrying obsession with biscuits to go along with my years of Mountain Dew-fancying.
  • The scenery - I won't ever forget the beauty of the beaches and forest of the Pacific North West,  the mountains of Yosemite, the California desert or the gentle pastureland of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Let's just say I feel the Brecon Beacons might be a bit ruined for me.
  • The openness - As a rule, Americans tend to lay their ideology out there in a way we don't in the UK, whether through t-shirts, baseball caps or bumper stickers, allegiances to political parties, universities and myriad ways of life are displayed. It's saying "this is me, I'm proud of it", and I love that, even if I don't always agree with the sentiment.
  • The museums - whether tiny and crazy or cavernous and scientific or historical and poignant, the USA has some incredible places of record which have been such a delight to explore for a massive nerd like me.
  • The roads - America is designed for drivers, and road trips are probably more fun here than anywhere in the world. There's something soul restoring about putting away miles, stopping at ancient gas stations, laughing at signs for "Wild Wilma's Fireworks" or counting Confederate flags flying on porches. Also, the roadkill here is awesome - I've seen an alligator, an armadillo, and many, many possums.

There's probably a whole lot more, but for now I'll sign off. I need to get some fireworks from Wilma.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Americus to Lawrenceville

Location: Lawrenceville, GA, USA
Today was more driving, but the last bit of road tripping of my journey, so I listened to country stations while making excellent use of cruise control for the three hours north back to Whitney's. The change in scenery was remarkable, from cute little towns time had somehow mislaid, to strip malls with endless Waffle Houses and Chick-Fil-A's as we got closer to Atlanta. I was going to stop at a Piggly Wiggly to get a six pack of PBR for the evening, but Georgia doesn't allow the purchase of booze on a Sunday cos of Jesus, so I pushed on.

When I finally arrived in Lawrenceville it was lovely to see Whitney again and be enveloped in one of her enormous hugs. I am going to miss her terribly when I have to go back to Blighty. That evening we chilled out with Rob and the animals, ate Indian food and I uploaded photos. As such, here's a Brad Paisley video to make this post more interesting:

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Birmingham to Americus via Andersonville

Location: Andersonville, GA 31711, USA
I've always fancied going to Birmingham, Alabama, mainly as when I was new to the internet as an acne-covered tween in the 90s people would assume I was from there when I told them where I was born. "No," I'd have to inform them, "I was brought into this world in a large city in the English midlands which boasts the production of such international treasures as Ozzy Osbourne, Jasper Carrott, Noddy Holder and Roy Wood."

Unfortunately, however, I had to be out of the state in the early afternoon and it was rush hour when I left, so I was unable to drive through the city. I've been reliably informed that's not such a loss. Apparently they don't even have a Bull Ring.

The drive through rural Alabama to Georgia was beautiful - it's like going back in time to the America of the 30s and 40s - and some of the place names are brilliant: Prattville, Shorter, Chattahoochee, Ellaville, Lumpkin, Benevolence, Box Springs (I'm not kidding).

As I drove, little town squares with court houses, bakeries and old style gas stations gave way to white timber-framed churches proclaiming your imminent damnation and a Sunday bake sale, and then fields and fields and fields of cotton, wheat and pasture land. Every second car is a pick up, and the closer I got to Georgia the more the redness of the earth stained the highway the colour of fox fur.

I crossed the state line into Georgia at Fort Benning, but was unable to do any tooting as there wasn't a sign, damn it. Still, the trip was very pleasant and I arrived at Andersonville at 2pm.

I've wanted to visit Andersonville for about five years now. It's the location of a Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, as well as the US National POW Museum, and has a rather grisly history. The prison was opened towards the end of the war, when the prisoner-swapping agreement between the sides had broken down. The north realised that the south needed men more than they did, so keeping their soldiers prisoner made more sense, and they also objected strongly to the south's policy of re-enslaving or even executing any black union troops who were captured. As such, prison camps were erected across the country to house the men who were captured during battle from 1863 onwards.

Andersonville was built in February 1864 and was originally meant to hold a few thousand men. At its greatest capacity more than 33,000 troops were imprisoned there, and the subsequent food shortages, inadequate shelter from the Georgia sun and winter snow, as well as the poor water supply (they had one small stream for drinking, washing and toilet) meant over 12,000 men died. Most perished from water-borne diseases, but many died of starvation or of their battle wounds. It was a grim place.

The stream itself is pitiful; named Sweetwater Creek (lol, irony) it is a slow running water way now surrounded by BEWARE OF SNAKES signs, which I presume the prisoners did not have the advantage of. It was a hot day (90 degrees F at the end of September - that's Georgia for you) and not hard to imagine how awful the situation must have been for the incarcerated men. The humidity, the stench, the thirst and the fear of infection, as well as the constant hunger and uncertainty must have been truly terrible.

After the war, the conditions at the prison shocked the country, even though the state of some northern camps weren't much better. The sheer size of Andersonville, and the number of the dead overwhelmed people, and the camp's commander, Henry Wirz, was tried and executed for war crimes - the only person to be so accused in the war's aftermath.

The prison's grounds are now a site of historic interest, and part of the stockade has been rebuilt for visitors to see how it might have looked at the time. There is also a partial reconstruction of the "deadline" - a low fence about five feet from the stockade walls, which created a sort of no man's land between them. If a prisoner crossed the deadline, he could be shot on sight by the guards. The name of the fence has prevailed in history, and is the origin of the phrase we now use to mean "time limit".

Still, as the museum indicated, many men did survive the prison and went on to tell their stories about their experiences there. They chime fascinatingly with those of prisoners of war in many other conflicts, which the museum also covers, including the world wars, revolutionary war, gulf wars and the Vietnam war. In one testimony from solider James B. Stockdale, who was captured by the Viet Cong, he said, "It's part of my identity now that I lived like an animal." I think the men of Andersonville would relate to that.

After I'd wandered around the peaceful cemetery and bought some souvenirs I headed off to my hotel for the night, in nearby Americus. It was a slightly surreal experience as I both had the same room number as the night before (I wonder what the odds of that are?) and there was also a Jimmy Carter convention taking place there. Lots of people wore badges with his grinning face on. He wasn't there, though. I stayed in my room and watched A&E, too scared to engage any of them in discussion. I'm not really an expert in peanut farming.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Nashville to Birmingham

Location: Birmingham, AL, USA
This morning I dropped my folks off at the airport to fly home and then drove on to Birmingham, Alabama. It's a long, pretty drive, but really I didn't do much except boggle at the sheer number of Baptist churches and Cracker Barrels on the way. Jesus clearly like biscuits. I don't blame him.

I ended up at my motel pretty late, but I was able to wash some knickers (having been forced to go commando due to a laundry room deficit in the fancy hotels my family like to stay in) and use their lobby computer (complete with a "NO PORN, THNK YOU" sign - damn). As such, here is something which has been circulating in my head since visiting Graceland. Thanks to Graham Linehan I can't actually think of the word Elvis in anything except an Irish accent now: