Alternate title: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Ireland.
I recently visited America for the first time. I went to Washington DC for two days, then Arlington for three, then New York for five. I travelled on the day the US border opened, for which every airport I travelled through was completely unprepared. I was there for an Emergent Ventures meetup, which was both wonderful and exhausting. But here I’m just going to talk about what visiting was like.
The first thing I learned about America is that when you cross the road, you take your life into your own hands. I’m exaggerating, but crossing the road is legitimately stressful and frustrating.
It struck me quite how much of my cultural knowledge of America was initially derived from The Simpsons. For example, I first learned about Capitol Hill from the “I’m an Amendment to Be” song.
I drank at a bona fide American Starbucks, where the barista somehow misheard my name (after three attempts) as “Chrem”. See here for some discussion of how the sad state came to be in which the pre-eminent coffee brand is American not Italian.
I don’t have anything funny or cynical to say about the National Mall – it’s beautiful. I saw Biden’s helicopter overhead, and I was told he always travels with two others so that if a missile hits them, he still has a 2/3rds chance of surviving. I suppose he and Kamala also never eat the same meals either…
The outside of the White House was surprisingly empty. I guess when there are no European tourists, people in DC probably aren’t going to go there.
There are always protesters outside the White House. Some of these are pretty funny – for example, someone protesting the presence of American troops in ‘Corea’.
I also saw this tent, which was protesting every major political cause of the last forty years (I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by photographing the front). We have Afghanistan in there, Black Lives Matter, Palestine, Cuba, El Salvador (?), Burma. He also seemed to be anti-QAnon, but also think that the election was stolen, so maybe he was in like a faction of QAnon that split off from the main branch?
A highlight of DC was visiting the Udvar-Hazy Center, where for instance I saw the space shuttle Discovery:
My favourite part was the bizarre one-person experimental aircrafts, for example the Hiller (unfortunate name) Flying Platform, which you controlled by leaning forward!
After arriving in New York, we couldn’t decide which of the bridges in Central Park was the one where the scene with the bird lady from Home Alone 2 was shot, but this was the closest we got:
I found MoMA to be surprisingly inaccessible. Other than the famous artists and artworks I was already familiar with, I didn’t really understand what point any of the other artwork was making. The information panels at the side are also written in a trite and unenlightening way. My favourite piece was Monet’s Water Lilies, which was stunning.
I spotted this chair, designed by the architect Le Corbusier, famous in the rationalist blogosphere for his push for excessive centralisation in urban planning, as discussed in Seeing Like a State.
Seeing this reminded me to tell my friend about the Mondrian Squares riddle:
Our hotel was somewhat near to Times Square, so we passed it a few times. My overall impression was that Times Square should really be called Times Wedge. It has a road going right through it!
I really have to respect American corporations on this one. They managed to turn looking at advertisements into a tourist attraction.
I expected to find the constant American flags annoying, but I actually found it endearing. Constant visual reminders of your country seem important in cementing national unity in the absence of shared ethnicity. It’s a shame that the Irish flag is somewhat bland, and that in certain areas it’s coded as nationalist/Catholic. The previous flag was cooler.
As someone who celebrates human progress I am compelled to love the Empire State Building. They built it in 13 months! In 1930! As mind-boggling as the history is, my new official favourite skyscraper is the Chrysler building, which has a much more memorable design.
One of the most fun things we did in New York was go to a meetup in a tiny rented-out museum. We were speaking to the curator who told us he was working on a COVID museum. He showed us empty vials of the four American/European vaccines, as well as the type of syringe that retracts in on itself. Most syringes leave ~0.1ml of excess at the bottom, but this type doesn’t, allowing you to squeeze out one or two extra doses.
Seeing Wayne Tucker and the Bad Motha’s live in Birdland was one of my highlights of the entire trip.
We went to Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange, which was (like everything else in New York apparently) under construction.
Finally, we rounded off the trip at the Statue of Liberty. My overall impression is that America is significantly nicer than I expected, with the streets being much cleaner than I’m used to. It was also much more expensive than I expected, although I’m not sure if this is related to recent supply chain problems and inflation. Having said that, visiting also probably reduced my probability of moving there because America is no longer a mythical fountain of wealth and larger-than-life characters, but a normal country.