Encounters with Americans

I’ve traveled to America a handful of times. My previous visits include New Jersey pre-9/11, when you could just haul your junk into a van and go driving, and Aspen, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada post-9/11 but pre-passport requirements for Canadians.

When I was Aspen and Vegas, I was there with another Canadian (or four). We were our own unit navigating through waters very similar to our own, culturally speaking. These were tourists destination, and people from everywhere were visiting and enjoying the space together. And back even further, I was in Jersey visiting friends and found it very Ontario-ish. Didn’t hurt that it was also for nerd-on-nerd action, and nerds speak a common tongue that crosses national boundries in weird and lovely ways. (Not that we aren’t all nerds at Viable Paradise…)

But this time I was traveling on my own and I while I was going to a vacation destination, Viable Paradise was not a vacation. I wasn’t eating in restaurants. I wasn’t sight-seeing. I wasn’t traveling with fellow Canadians. I was immersed, feeling a like an anthropology student in the midst of an ethnographic study. Don’t get me wrong, everyone was absolutely fabulous, delightful, friendly, and nerdy. But ever so often a small thing would take me by surprise, make me furrow my brow and go, “Huh!”

The United States is, by far, not a small country, but no matter what group I sat with while I was there, inevitably discussion would turn to where you are from (naturally) and then turn into a weird six-degrees sort of game. It was uncanny the number of times VP attendees had lived practically on top of each other in their past, something that seemed on face value to be statistically improbably. But here they were, “Oh, I lived there x-number-of-years ago. Were you by such-and-such area?” “Yes!”

Not only that, but these people moved. A lot. Like, all over the place. They bounce from state to state every so often, like they were changing cities. Some had lived in all four corners of the continental United States. You just don’t see that in Canada. People move up and down province but not so much across provinces. Sure, there is a westward movement of people, but when someone treks west, it’s a BIG DEAL. It’s a say your goodbyes, thank god for Skype sort of deal. There is something much more final to that kind of a move. But the way the other students talked, this sort of movement was fairly routine.

Then again, as far as territories of governance go, I suppose our provinces are sort of bigReally big. (Ignoring outliers like P.E.I.) Many of the states, though, are tiny little boxes, small enough to navigate in a couple of hours or less.  Yet, as much as the VP students seemed to have moved around, their family histories ran deep. For me, who is only a second generation Canadian (my grandparents on both sides immigrated to Canada in the 30s/40s) and with nebulous ties to my own family history, hearing a fellow VPer tell me about the guns that have been in her family since the Civil War blew me away. I can’t imagine. I think it’s wonderful. (Can be a yoke of its own, too, I suppose.)

While I intellectually understand and appreciate that Canada has a history, it doesn’t feel like it has the same strength of presence that American history does. This might a generational thing, this might be because Canada was not born under the same pressures, I don’t know. But Canada, to me, has this uniformitarianism quality to it — that the way it is now is the way it has always been.  America does not feel that way, at least to this outsider. Its history has a looming quality to it that was captivating. Still hasn’t let me go. (Hence this post, I suppose.)

Other odd bits that are still floating around in my head:

1) Take any of the interior roads of Martha’s Vineyard and plunk them down in northern Ontario and they would not look out of place for a second. They have about as many skunks on the island as you would expect to have up here, too. Three sightings around the Inn in the week I was there.

2) Collard Greens! First time for me, and quite tasty. The food we had during the week was excellent while shopping at the local grocery store was entertaining. Portuguese muffins, for example, sweet, sweet, sweet. Not a suitable bagel or english muffin substitute. Yogurt by the same manufacturer down here was overly sweet and weirdly colored. Staples were expensive, but given that we were on an island, understandable. Alcohol was outrageously priced. No wonder people drive it in.

3) There were a few nightly singsongs, and I was surprised how many folks could pick up an honest-to-goodness hymn. Again, wouldn’t happen in mixed company in Canada. (Not that I could sing along to much of the rock music either, but I digress.) Again, cool but strange, like I’d just opened the wrong refrigerator door and found it had pickles instead of cucumbers.

For a very small, as un-fuzzied as possible collection of photographs of Viable Paradise, here is my Flickr feed: http://www.flickr.com/photos/scribofelidae/tags/vpxv/. A lot of ’em are blurry. Wish the iPhone 4S had been out before the trip — the improvement in picture quality might have been enough to eat the early upgrade cost.

Anywho, this journal entry is getting long. I’ve gotten all my journaling out of me. I’ve typed up half of my notes (the rest being story specific now) and read through the lecture notes that I typed during class. I’m still having a hard time explaining VP to others, even folks in my writing group. The upside is that the group has been in near-constant communication since we’ve left via Twitter and the mailing list. And may it continue to be so!

Lovely Americans, one and all.

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