To Eric; the man in my life and a wonderful human being…
When does a non-American begin to feel the flooding surge of Americanness – or should I rather ask WHERE? A possible answer seems to be: upon encountering exclusively American phenomena; icons and surroundings unshared with anything known before. And where else could such an insight into those American “things” be gained other than on the United States East Coast; the heart of America’s beginnings and the very substance from which Americanness is made.
Whether in American studies classes or within International students’ circles the one debate reigning over all discussions of the meaning of America has been predominantly concerned with deciding whether regionalism is the sole factor in determining what Americanness mean or should we look for some other details? In other words, is America more American on the East Coast, West Coast, Midwest or how exactly could we ever arrive at a valid concept? American students firmly believe that it is here, in the Midwest, in the Heartland of the United States, that the authentic soul of America is to be savored and the true, genuine meaning of Americanness is to be understood. But why do most international students disagree?
Whether these convictions are factual or speculative remains an individual decision. We do not even know if there’s any sound basis on which to build these statements other than what our personal experiences dictate; our encounters with the multiple faces of America.
But it is this very multiplicity that should always alert us to the dangers of speaking in generalities and making final, irreversible conclusions. To some America equals power; to others it symbolizes ruthless savagery; to others it is synonymous with a specific political or governmental structure and still to others it is merely Hip-Hop and R&B!!!
Even though my experience of the United States is not yet full-fledged I have learned to keep my heart and mind open whenever I am about to encounter something new this country promises to offer. America and I were able to make friends as soon as we met even though we had our clashes and minor differences; we got to know each other better and then we fell in love. And like the world’s greatest love stories our relationship is built on faith, trust and respect. I accept what it has to offer and I simply trust I will not be disappointed; we will be taking care of each other and our experiences will enhance our love and nurture our relationship.
Experiencing the East Coast is probably the best way to bring those debates over the meaning of Americanness to a satisfying closure. Having learned about what Americans themselves believe to be “The Authentic American” in the Heartland it was time to test my own non-American notions of authenticity! Have I arrived at a more perfect understanding of authenticity? I don’t know. Let’s see. You be the judge!
Christmas Eve in Charm City!
Baltimore or Monument City or B-More (as my boyfriend likes to call it!) made its first appearance from my airplane’s window; a city basking in sparkling lights winking seductively at me from down below and a modern, glamorous cast. The lower the plane descended the better I could predict what to see later. Upon seeing the way it sits beautifully within the Inner Harbor I gradually began to understand why Baltimore has often been referred to as the sister city of Italy’s Genoa.
The aerial overview instantly brought to my mind thousands of pictures I have seen of Genoa’s ports and harbors; an association that soon extended to what I was looking at while we were driving. The reflection of the glistening city lights on the sea waters in the heart of the city was probably the loveliest detail of all.
As we were moving deeper into the heart of the city I realized that Christmas time is probably not the best time to experience new cities after all for there’s always the people’s desire to secede from the city scene and go into a more familial phase but, as I said, I have learned to keep the faith and remain
open-minded. And I was right! “Bless Cecil Calvert wherever he is right now!” was all I could think of and suddenly I felt myself battling with the facts of history which say that this city is a little bit over 300 years old!
Eric is strongly aware of my almost abnormal obsession with everything Italian so he took me straight to Baltimore’s Little Italy; a cozy community cuddled up between the harbor and historic Fells Point – or so was my conception of the geography!!!
Our plan was to be able to attend the midnight mass at Saint Leo the Great, the heart and soul of Baltimore’s Little Italy, despite the pressure of my flight times. And as we were cruising through the quiet and faintly-lit alleys trying to find Saint Leo’s I found myself hoping that I would never be disappointed with the fact that I have chosen to study Italian-American communities and the Italian-American experience in the United States. The excessive serenity of the place has probably planted such a fear of frustration in my mind, and the only way to purge all traces of doubt was an immediate human interaction.
That life-saving moment (or should I say thesis-saving!?!!) was to be found in the packed interior of Saint Leo’s teeming with attentive listeners of all ages with strikingly Italian features. Eric and I elbowed our way through the standing crowd and found ourselves a nook next to an elegant statute of the dead Saint Leo.
Pastor Michael Salerno radiates with all-Italian warmth of character and sense of humor. The tenets of his sermon, spoken in strongly-accented English, were unmistakably Italian. But it was his emphasis on the traditional Italian ways of life and how they helped Italian immigrants survive in their adopted country that finally helped me break free from any previous skepticism concerning the validity of my inquiries. Salerno passionately spoke of the Via Vecchia (or the traditional Italian ways and lifestyle especially as adhered to and practiced by southern Italians); a topic on which I produced my first full-length project during my first semester. And that’s when I found myself cheering inside: YAY!
When Salerno’s sermon okayed my research interests and eased my restlessness I found myself finally able to relax and redirect my attention to other details. Saint Leo is a uniquely Italian place with strong colors and intimate feel. The delightful fusion between gold and fiery red both set against a background of beautiful marbles inspire enticingly warm sensations and a pleasant peaceful ambience. As a matter of fact, it is this sweet, unaffected familiarity and homelike atmosphere that sets Baltimore’s Little Italy in sharp contrast with that we found in New York City – But let’s not spoil that for the moment!
D.C. for Two!
The next morning we woke up to a rainy Christmas Day. Baltimoreans completely retired themselves from any outdoor activities and cafes and restaurants endorsed the decision by staying closed all day long. But we were too hungry to give up! At last we found an open store where we grabbed some snacks and set out for Washington D.C. Eric has often explained to me the geographical oddity of D.C. being somewhere between Virginia and Maryland, but it was only when we were driving through it all that I began to figure out the geographical blend – pretty much the same as the Kansas – Missouri debate (well, ok, to some extent!)
I have always been told that one needs more than a day to explore D.C. The holidays, the rain and the pressure of time all prevented us from doing so. However, Eric opted to drive to the most emblematic symbols of D.C. – but without saying so! Minutes later we were on one of the major avenues (Maryland or Pennsylvania, I am not sure!) leading straight to the United States Capitol.
My reaction was the bomb! My reaction was a surprise not only for Eric, but for me as well! The car was too small to contain my thrill and excitement, and I just had to step out to make sure this was not a dream. Eric joyfully watched me explaining that he didn’t actually think it would be such a sensational experience for me (Of course, it’s just Capitol building and I have driven by it God knows how many times!) So he started to enjoy the game pointing out different monuments and landmarks while keeping me in the car – until it became absolutely unbearable!
We parked and I stepped out like jack OUT of the box! Eric was enormously enjoying my childish jumpiness and so was I! What is so out of the ordinary about encountering an all-American attraction for non-Americans?!? I could not help but wonder…
The beauty of a rainy day in D.C. and the bracing freshness of the crisp cool air were doubled by the scarcity of human existence around us. The monument area was virtually empty with the exception of friendly gulls who greeted us so cheerfully and hospitably that for a minute I thought I had no fear of animal problems anymore and occasional runners who obviously enjoyed losing weight under the rain!
Soaked in rain and overwhelmed with enthusiasm we stepped back into the car and drove through the surrounding areas. Washington D.C. is a modern recreation of Classical Rome. Sometimes, one gets the feeling that the city boasts more Roman buildings and monuments than Ancient Rome itself. D.C. is the treasure trove for anyone wishing to explore the survival of the Classical in modern-day United States – another reason for my instant attachment to this culturally affluent city.
But Eric did not want me to leave without getting the big, complete picture – and it wasn’t very hard to capture! I have always noticed the change of surroundings and settings within towns and cities from graceful to grubby, from stylish to squalid and it doesn’t take more than a few blocks until the transformation is evident. There is always an abrupt schism among the different vistas one sees on a typical drive. It is a pervasive phenomenon that often had me wondering about how different classes in the society of the United States interact or clash…
In D.C. Georgia Avenue was the dividing line between the nations’ capital as it is known to the world and D.C. as completely obscured from perhaps every single visitor. But I had an insider guide! Eric prudently steered into the heart of Georgia Avenue while counting the number of shops and stores that have been stormed and ransacked over the last few days! Georgia Avenue is an all-American ghetto; one that is consistently portrayed in the popular culture marketed to the outside world. As a result, whereas it is a high-risk zone for a native; it is a tourist Arcadia!
It is only later that I learned that Georgia Avenue is actually a historic neighborhood rich in Civil War as well as African-American history. But since the internet can’t tell you everything, make sure you have some good company while you do your exploring!
A Tasty Bite of the Big Apple
Reader, let me tell you about New York City. I know you’ve been there before and walked the walk and have seen it all, but allow me to invite you to see it through my own eyes. Trust me, it will be different…
We needed an intelligent and resourceful plan while visiting the Big Apple. To make the plan work we had to make the outskirts of New Jersey be our initial stop rather than venturing into taking the car into the heart of NYC. Eric found a favorable compromise in Newark Liberty International Airport and its NJ Airtrain Transit system with lines taking commuters to NYC’s Pennsylvania Station. As it is to be expected, even though the system is highly convenient it still can be too overwhelming. After the trip to NYC I read an article in the New York Times by Erik Torkells in which he said “I’ve lived in New York City for 13 years, but when I took the Airtrain from Newark Liberty to Penn Station last year, even I almost got off at the wrong stop. (There’s a Penn Station in New Jersey?)” The irony is that this is exactly what happened to us! We got off at NJ Penn Station with confused looks on our faces that literally read “But there is an NJ Penn Station?!?!”
After reading that article I called Eric and told him that if this guy was about to get lost after 13 years of being a New Yorker then we really should not be too hard on ourselves!
The only way to settle the dispute was to revert to our common sense – or should I say artistic intuition! Pennsylvania Station was supposed to be one of the world’s best and most famous, but this so-called NJ Penn Station was far from being anything worthy of universal acclaim. On the other hand, it served as my first initiation into a completely different face of America – that of the busy, ethnically diverse and complicated lifestyle. No more easygoing, laidback Midwestern archetypes! Be grateful that your shoes are comfy today!!!
As the train was pushing through the highly industrial grimy ghettos on the fringes of Newark my eyes were gazing alternately on the scrapheap and junkyards close by and the towering NYC skyline in the near horizon. Inside the train I let my eyes travel and wander freely and extensively into each single detail – human or not. My brain was buffeted with a barrage of insights, observations, revelations…all hitting at once and in unison…Suddenly I felt tired…
But when Eric declared that we were finally at NYC’s Penn Station my blood was rushing again, and a faint voice inside my head warned that I will need all of my strength and energy in order to be able to handle what was coming next.
At last in Penn Station, lost and confused. Maps are not helpful. People are moving insanely fast. Signs are not enough. My previous mental fatigue was soon carried over to Eric. Wavering from one map to another and from one spot to another frustration was creeping in. We needed some fresh air to recollect our powers – mental and emotional!
We randomly selected an exit that took us up to the street. As we were approaching the final few steps a breeze of cool, refreshing air brushed over my face. I slowed down to enjoy but faster heartbeats prompted me upwards.
And there it was! A breathtakingly energetic New York City street! A vision of modern glory and unrivaled charm. Everything I have known or envisioned or read about this city from Washington Irving to Carrie Bradshaw flashed before my eyes in split seconds. Encountering New York City was the final confirmation I truly needed to know that I have actually crossed the Atlantic! NYC gave me a warm flattering pat on the back…
Dazzled and panting as if thunderstruck, both of us, we pressed our backs against a wall behind us as if wanting to steal a moment to let it all sink while looking upward to the colossal buildings and architectural wonders around us. NYC’s skyscrapers are its Vatican, its Notre Dame and its Parthenon. Nothing sets Old World models against those of the New better than its major cities’ skyscrapers.
Tired and overwhelmed? Maybe. But also too agitated to remain glued to a wall and be content with seeing one corner. I had to step forward and I thank my lucky stars I did! The most representative symbol of NYC and perhaps the United States in its entirety was right there to my left – standing tall and proud, in full bloom, the Empire State Building was winking seductively and welcomingly at me; a playful, naughty child hiding behind a mass of buildings until it found the perfect moment to make its appearance right in front of me and set me aflame!
“Oh my God! It’s the Empire State Building!” I literally yelled in the heart of a crowded, busy NYC street!
Eric was still affixed to his post and too reluctant to make the step forward; he was perhaps still too enervated to get too excited too quickly that he even suspected it is what I say it is! But nothing could confirm the building’s identity better than my exhilaration and watery eyes and the electrifying shakiness of my body. We forgot about subways and trains and metro cards – “let’s go up there!” was the immediate and only decision we cared about…
Walking closer (or should I say jumping!?) towards this magnificent edifice I would occasionally stop and look up and rejoice in the charm and grandeur of every single structure and every single all-New York detail. It is beauty in an intimidating, majestic way…
The streets and intersections leading to the Empire State Building were packed with another NYC icon -NYPD Training Academy graduates loaded with hopes and beaming with happiness. I pored over their elegant spotless uniforms and the big smiles on their ethnically- diverse faces and suddenly I felt lucky and grateful that I am equally happy as any of them though our motives are different. The truth is I wondered if anyone’s happiness was in any measure comparable to mine. I wrapped my arms around Eric and I fell in love with life and human existence all over again…
We made it through the jolly crowd to the entrance door of the Empire State Building where we took a quick tour around the first floor and then prepared to get tickets to get to the top. I anticipated a long line of people and long it was, but not too annoyingly so. Heightened security procedures might have had a hand in stalling visitors, but to keep this building safe and sound I am glad they were.
New York City from the top of the Empire State Building is an intimidating, yet intoxicating vision. NYC enjoys uniqueness more than anything else and that’s why even from 1, 200 feet high what you look at below is unmistakably NYC. And even though you don’t see the subways or hear the noise or shove through people or worry about getting lost, still, what you look at instantly generates associations with such moments and such experiences. The cold wind was severely cutting through our faces at that height, but the spectacle was too beautiful to walk away from so we held out as much as we could before finally descending back down on earth!
Once more into the fast-beating heart of NYC being lost was fun only to the point where it was manageable; while roaming through the spacious streets and gazing at the monumental structures for exploration’s sake. But when it was time to make a transition to another part of the city we needed to know where we are and where we’re going. But even after purchasing Metro Cards we opted to take a cab to NYC’s Little Italy!
Eric rejoices in my kinky obsession with Italianness perhaps more than I do. As we were approaching Little Italy he teasingly started pointing out Italian flags and restaurant names playing on my mounting excitement and growing impatience. As we were striding along the neighborhood’s congested streets with joyful hearts and empty stomachs I felt more assured that making Italian-Americans an object for academic investigation was a wise decision. New York’s Little Italy is even more alive and brimming with Italianness than that of Baltimore’s. However, it has grown to be a highly commercialized tourist attraction. In Baltimore, the commercial harmoniously entwines with the domestic, and private residences are easily spotted alongside the neighborhood’s eateries and businesses. But New York’s Italian community still tenaciously holds on to the language, the heritage and the roots; a cultural legacy perhaps preserved by first or second-generation Italian immigrants whom I was able to espy occasionally in the neighborhood.
Between enjoying a delicious Italian lunch and touring gift shops I was basking in Little Italy’s festive lights and relishing in the neighborhood’s warmth and familiarity all heightened by Eric’s sweet and devoted companionship. A few blocks later we were on another continent!
Chinatown is curiously tangled with Little Italy – even to the point where one cannot identify the borders of each. “Where else in the world would Chinese and Italians live in such physical and cultural proximity than in NYC?!!!?” I found myself marveling. Suddenly I found myself deploring my own people’s intolerance and their fanatic inclination towards bloodshed over minor ethnic and religious differences that the entire history of the country refuses to even recognize as “differences”! Here they are – Asian blood and European stock amicably sharing a neighborhood – let alone a country!
Back on a subway to explore Times Square by night – did I say night?! Times Square after sunset really prompts you to think twice before stating positively that you are talking about nocturnal activities. Shakespeare believed that his heroine’s cheeks, eyes, whatever …are bright enough to shame the sun and provoke an envious moon…I wonder what would his reaction be to what Times Square has to offer! Reader: the sentence “Times Square is a sunny day” is both a grammatically and a logically correct!
But who could successfully be there on Christmas time? Here are a few suggestions: the physically fit (but if you are a slow-mover that would be just perfect! Fit to our purpose!) , people who jostle people resourcefully, the tolerant (you know, someone who rejoices in diversity rather than be troubled by it!), and the stoically patient (because it might take forever to move from A to B!). Claustrophobics, bigots, speed-lovers and edgy people – keep your distance…This might not be the experience for you…
After a short break away from the frenzied Square inside the warm and intimate Starbucks we set out to explore the Rockefeller Center and its famous skating plaza – and, of course, the giant Christmas tree.
The Rockefeller Center and its surroundings were charged with a passionate festive spirit; one which endowed the holidays with a more dreamlike, magical aura. The most fascinating elements for me were the flags (200 flagpoles, as I learned later) and Paul Manship’s gilded statue of Prometheus, which was an object already familiar to me thanks to my American art class this semester. What an appropriate monument in a fitting locale! Prometheus seems to be stealing fire from every single corner in the universe and accumulating it all in the heart of this city. Flags, on the other hand, somehow symbolized tolerance and liberality to me. They figuratively communicated ideals unique only to a diverse country like the United States.
When we departed from the Rockefeller Center we began to feel refreshing drizzles of light rain washing our faces and that of New York as well. Too immersed in the city’s magnetic allure we lost our subway again! Eric is a seasoned travel, East-coast and big cities resident but NYC was the ultimate challenge for him; a matter of “to defeat or be defeated!” And a great portion of the highlights of my experience was centered on the pleasures of watching him defeat and break down the complexities of NYC into manageable bits and pieces. But subways have this power on foreign visitors which leave them constantly wondering “how much time does one need in NYC to finally become familiar with this system?!” But we were finally able to find our platform.
When one descends into NYC’s subways and then climbs up to its glowing streets and avenues a striking revelation bursts in: New York City is a two-faced creature; someone with serious schizophrenic issues! The glitter of the streets upwards sharply contrasts with the relative murkiness of what’s down below. Every human being is alert, alive and full of energy in the heart of Times Square and other busy corners; on a subway counting the numbers of slumbering commuters is a real fun way to spend time on the way to your destination! But the one thing in common among every corner and every nook and cranny is the mentally challenging, nay, exhausting diversity which permeates NYC in truly inexplicable ways. Every time I looked around me during our sojourn in NYC I found it hard to identify race, language or any feature indicative of any distinctive ethnic type. Oftentimes, I turn to look at Eric and I find myself concluding that he is the only white, English-speaking American male I have ever seen in NYC!!! A shocking conclusion that brought me back to the introductory classes in American studies at KU, the ones that were primarily concerned with the question – what is an American? It is the question I posed when I first set out to share those experiences with the world asking `How are we to identify Americanness? What is authentically American?
The irony is that before I set foot into the United States I came with the conviction that the term “American” is an idea, an abstract concept – never tangible, never identifiable. A few experiences later helped me form a framework or a reference point to return to whenever I am using such elusive terms as “American” and “Americanness”, but what New York City did is demolishing every possible structure I thought I was able to construct to understand the country that is the object of my academic pursuit. New York City literally bulldozed every theory, every concept, every conviction and brought me back to what I have always known long before any theory had to be tested on U.S. soil, that is, conceiving the country as an idea, rather than any conventional, orthodox ways of discussing nations and the character of their peoples.
When we walked away from NYC I missed it instantly. And as I lay down in bed that same night ruminating over the events of our busy day I felt I was missing an old friend; someone dear I have not seen in a very long time but have not had the chance to spend as much time with as desired. It was a rare, precious feeling knowing that the happiness I was living this Christmas was worth all the wait and the pain till it was realized…I fell asleep peacefully knowing that I had it all – love, happiness and my dreams…