I think I need to start this blog by apologising to all our American friends for any offence that I am about to cause with my observations of your "Great Nation" (Yes well, we'll come to that later!) and any sweeping generalisations that I will make about the American public. My comments are based on what we observed in just two cities: New York and Washington DC, and from what we observed it is clear that you are all as mad as a box of frogs. But it would be unfair to claim that the same is true for the whole of the USA, that would be like saying that the people of London and Manchester (those are both in England by the way) are representative of all Europeans, which they clearly are not.
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way I can get on with the business of insulting the whole of America. . . Except for you my dear friends, obviously none of this applies to you!
New York - the busiest city in America:
To begin with I expected America to be not quite as foreign in the way that European countries are foreign. Let me explain: when travelling to other countries you expect them to have different food, culture and language but Americans speak English, don't they? And as we have adopted some US culture, the food will be basically the same, most of the people came from Europe originally, mainly from England, Ireland, Spain and France, so how different can it be right? WRONG!
New York is big, and by that I mean that everything is big and busy and bustling, it is all skyscrapers and neon signs. Of course, I have visited many big cities before: London, Paris, Rome, Berlin; but this felt different. New York is brash, ostentatious and NEW. Even the old buildings look new to European eyes and some are designed to look older than they are, creating a false history that is not felt; a poor imitation of European culture. And that, I think, hits the nail on the head for me; the city feels false. Rather like Milton Keynes, it has been created rather than evolving organically over hundreds or thousands of years and this impression is intensified by the grid layout of the streets and the fact that almost all roads are numbered rather than named. Streets run East to West and avenues North to South with the odd exception such as Broadway which cuts diagonally across the city. On the plus side this makes getting lost almost impossible!
Times Square was also not what I expected in as much as it is not really a square at all but rather a very busy elongated junction between Broadway, Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street. It does have all the neon signs that you expect but the pedestrian area is a disappointingly small paved triangle no bigger than Piccadilly Circus in London.
The famous 'lights of Broadway' are pretty much confined to the Times Square area and away from that, the theatre district, which is less glamourous than London's West End.
We were staying in the Hell's Kitchen area of the city which is known as the restaurant district, which meant that most nights we were able to find a good restaurant within a stone's throw of our hotel. Most of the food is familiar once you get past the language barrier, because American food consists of burgers, steak and ribs, everything else is Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, etc. Fast food seems to dominate to such an extent that some of the best restaurants in town specialise in burgers and sandwiches all served with fries. There is a Starbucks on every corner (I didn't see a single Costa in either city!) and the majority of the daytime food available is burger, pizza or a sandwich from Pret a Manger or similar. And almost always with an offer of endless refills of fizzy drinks.
"England and America are two countries divided by a common language", wrote George Bernard Shaw - I'm afraid George understated the situation somewhat, so a typical lunchtime conversation went something like this:
"Can I ask you a question?" This is a necessary prelude so that the waiting staff can make the giant mental shift required to prepare to receive a question. "What are matzo balls?"
"That will be like dumplings made from crushed matzo crackers." (Always in the future tense.)
"And what are matzo crackers?"
"Oh that will be what we make the matzo balls from!"
"Err. . . OK. . .(you're not really helping!). . . and what is a Rueben?"
"That will be a grill san'ich with corn beef, provel and sauerkraut."
"and a Hoagie?"
Oh, that will be pastrami, pepper jack and mesclun on a rye sub."
"I'm sorry, I do not understand any of the words that you are saying." This is met with a blank look as if I am the one having trouble understanding the Engilsh language.
"OK, can I please order one hoagie with ham cheese and arugula, one pulled pork Po' boy and a portion of hush puppies." I have no idea of what I have just ordered but it sounds like a half smoked cigar, a bedpan and a pair of shoes.
"Will that be here or to go?"
"I think we'll eat in, thank you."
"Will that be here or to go?"
"Are you doing this on purpose?"
"I am trying to help you sir!"
And all this in a bored voice, without smiling or making eye contact, and then they expect a 20% tip.
Now while we are on the subject of tips, and I'm not being funny here, but this is the only country that I have ever visited where it is quite normal to see on the bottom of your check (that's your bill to us English speakers) a "Minimum 18% tip!" I mean a minimum tip? What is that all about? In the UK we tip according to how good the service has been, which is normally about 10% for good or excellent service, and less, or nothing at all, if the service (or food quality) has been below par. We expect the employer to pay their staff a decent living wage and the gratuity is a "thank you" for going above and beyond the bare minimum level of service.
I appreciate that this is a different culture and waiting staff are paid very poorly in America even though food prices, to us, seem very high (partly due to a poor exchange rate at the moment). Employers expect their staff to pick up the extra out of tips. None-the-less I was surprised in one restaurant to see at the bottom of the bill '18% for acceptable service, 20% for good service, 22% for excellent service'. When I went to pay it was pointed out to me in no uncertain terms that the 18% was a MINIMUM!
Americans pride themselves on great customer service but actually we only experienced it in a handful of establishments. They could learn an awful lot from the Canadians, Italians and even the French! Manhattan as seen from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.
The Empire State building is big and impressive and at the time of building was the tallest skyscraper in the world. We had to queue to get a lift to the 2nd floor where you buy your tickets, then queue to get into the lift to the museum which in truth was just a few information boards to prevent the boredom while you queue for the lift to the 86th floor. It took over an hour to get to this level and there was a further queue to get up to the 102nd floor but I suspect that the view from up there was no better. The cost for the 86th floor was $32 and it would have been an eye watering $52 for tickets to the 102nd. Alternatively you can jump the queues by paying $60 for the 86th floor and $80 to the top. This is one of the must do experiences of NYC but I did feel that anything over the standard price to the Observation Deck (86th) is a bit of a rip-off.
Showing the multi-layered architecture of the Museum. The Museum of Modern Art had high points, Claude Monet's Water Lilies being the highlight for me. It also had its low points. In one gallery the room was divided up with large bits of bent cardboard so that you had to meander through such exhibits as the head of a sex doll rising up out of a pile of scrunched up tissue paper, or several large boxes of brightly coloured straws which had been tipped out in a heap on the floor. I'm not going to apologise for my views here: this was not a work of art, this was a pile of straws!
I took some interesting shots of the inside of the building which I believe to be far more skilled and artistic than a box of straws! I spotted this girl taking some time out from the exhibits.
Looking down through two stories of the MoMA.
The Little Italy and Chinatown districts were interesting to walk through but had little of photographic interest. We made our way to Pier 17, which is supposed to be an area of shops and restaurants with picturesque walks along the waterfront. Unfortunately the advertised opening date of 2015 was somewhat inaccurate and the pier itself was still a building site. We found a café which served suitably delicious looking sandwiches and set about trying to translate the menu board.
Little Italy, NYC. After lunch we made our way along the waterfront to the Museum of the Native American Indian which was interesting and infuriating in equal measures. These native people who were living in peace with the land (if not always with each other) were treated abysmally by the Europeans who arrived on their shores. At first all was friendly while the Europeans needed the natives experience of how to survive in this 'new world'. Later, when the immigrants became greedy, they cheated the natives out of their lands if they were lucky, and subjected them to genocide if they were unlucky. It really upsets me when I hear the likes of Donald Trump complaining about the immigrants. Just try looking at your history before you throw stones!
Wall StreetThe building on the right is the New York Stock Exchange.
While we were in the area we took a walk down Wall Street, just one more of those places that just has to be seen.
When I said that everything is big here, that includes the open spaces. The main green space for people to escape from the rat race of the city is Central Park. This is a park on a huge scale, approximately 4km by 1km it sits, as the name would suggest, right in the middle of the city.You can get an idea of the scale of the park in the top of this photograph (below). Another view from the Empire State Building: Central Park can be seen in the distance.
The city crowds in on Central Park from all sides. Obviously in such a big park there is plenty to see and we spent a whole morning meandering through. Below is a picture of the boating lake, on the other side of which is the Boathouse restaurant and café. We only stopped here for a sandwich and a drink but I was told later that the restaurant is one of the best in NYC. Fountain and boating lake in the middle of Central Park.
Nearby the fountain is a memorial to John Lennon who owned an apartment overlooking this part of the park. A little further round is this tribute to Lewis Carol.
A scene from Alice in Wonderland, the Lewis Carol tribute. The John Lennon tribute. A stained glass window in the Metropolitan Museum.
If you are going to explore Central Park I suggest you get a good map as ours in the guide book was a little vague and it was sometimes hard to locate the things that you want to see. Then getting lost is all part of the fun!
Please note - it is not advisable to still be in any of the city's parks after dark.
Of course no trip to New York would be complete without visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Taking advice from friends we had booked our tickets a couple of months in advance which saved us from queueing at the ticket office. The iconic view of the Statue of Liberty at the 'Gateway to the New World'.
We were told to arrive 30 minutes before departure which would be plenty of time to get through security. This, as with all major tourist attractions in this town, was a full airport style security. When we arrived the queue for security was 90 minutes long and all tickets had sold out for the day. Well we had our tickets so we joined the queue. At least there is a boat every 20 minutes and once you have a ticket you can get on any boat.
You can get some idea of scale from the tiny people at the base of the statue in this picture.
The boat trip to the statue was crowded but short and we walked around the outside of the statue taking pictures. The café and gift shop were also crowded and prices were high for some of the worst souvenir tat available in the modern world. We didn't bother, nor did we think it was worth the long queue (and extra fee) to go up inside the crown. After all the best views of the statue are from outside the statue!
We took another boat and next stop was Ellis Island. This is where would-be immigrants to the USA had their applications processed and is now a museum.
We had been blessed with good weather for most of our trip with an average temperature of about 35'C (That's 95'F). This meant that you could work up quite a sweat just strolling around outside and of course meant that we left the hotel each day wearing cool summer clothes. On entering a museum, art gallery, shop, restaurant etc. they insist on turning the temperature down on the air conditioning to something that Sir Ranulph Feinnes would find challenging.
Another definite must-see site is the site of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. On the 11th September 2001 Islamic extremists hijacked four planes that were flying over the US. Two were crashed into the World Trade Centre bringing down both towers; one was flown into the Pentagon; and the fourth crashed into a field after passengers, who had heard on social media what was happening with the other planes, tried to overcome the terrorists and take back control of the plane. 9/11 MemorialOne of the two commemorative pits at the World Trade Centre site.
The twin towers rose a quarter of a mile above the centre of the financial district of Manhattan, dwarfing every other building in the city. When they collapsed they left an 11 story high pile of rubble. Above is one of the two pits where the basement levels of the towers were, transformed into a memorial. A wall of tears. The water falling all around the edge forms the 'wall of tears'.
There is also a museum next to the memorial; part of it is under the memorial. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard about the 9/11 attacks. Like everybody else, I watched in horror as the news unfolded. It is somehow quite uncomfortable to think that day has now passed into history, but history it is. If you are going to view this museum then allow at least 4 hours and take a large box of Kleenex. As you travel around this museum you will relive the events of that day in every detail; nothing is held back.
After the 9/11 museum we were in need of a coffee and something to eat which we found across the road at the Winter The winter gardens at Brookfield Place. Gardens in Brookfield Place.
And that just about concludes the New York section of our trip. I don't have any interesting photos for you of the Highline which is a raised walkway that snakes its way through part of the city on a disused tram line. Nor do I have any great pictures of the Chelsea market, a large indoor area which is good for browsing souvenirs, clothes etc. but even better as a place to buy fresh food or to stop for lunch.
Viewing the art of the Frick Collection I told Gilly not to bother with a particular gallery that I had just exited because "it was just a box of straws", which has now become our metaphor for sub-standard modern art.
Grand Central Station (above) is the largest and busiest train station in the world. We passed through in the relatively quiet mid afternoon and then went on to get our train to Washington.
The Whitehouse. After the madness of NYC, Washington seems very laid back. The tallest building I saw in town was only about 12 stories high and the city has plenty of wide open space.
This is the capital city of the 'greatest nation on Earth', the main seat of power, the centre of the free world, the birthplace of modern democracy and the self-appointed arbiter of world justice. Well it is if you listen to the highly polished American propaganda machine in this town.
Here the American people can live 'the American Dream', whatever that is supposed to mean.
The American national arrogance is even more on display here and that is all the more worrying for it being the seat of government. Indoctrinated from birth with a patriotism that rivals any other nation, school children swear allegiance to the flag and everybody seems to buy in wholeheartedly to the idea that this is the greatest nation on Earth, and by reflection they are therefore the greatest people, and that is an easy lie to sell to an insular nation that rarely raises its eyes above the horizon to look beyond its own shores. It is also an idea which, if pushed to extremes, is very dangerous.
The people here seem to find it impossible to believe that the rest of the world does not share their view. This nationalist propaganda which is being exploited by Donald Trump while the rest of the world pray that the people of the USA as a whole cannot possibly be stupid enough to put him in power; and it is the very arrogance that has been behind American foreign policy for decades.
The American girl Anyway that's enough politics for now. On our first evening in Washington we went for a walk past the White House and then made our way down to the harbour area where we found this courtyard of restaurants (above). Here we spent a very pleasant couple of hours having a cocktail and dinner outside at the water's edge.
I saw this young lady being photographed on the pier and couldn't resist getting a shot myself.
Of course no holiday with Gilly would be complete without a visit to the local Holocaust museum and the one in Washington has the reputation of being one of the best in the world. Like so much in America it failed to live up to the hype. Don't get me wrong, it is a very good and moving museum but not a patch on either Yad Vashem or the Berlin Holocaust museum.
An interesting exhibit was called "Some of them were neighbours" which examined the motivations behind some of the people who betrayed friends and neighbours to the Nazi authorities.
The US Capitol stands on a slight rise in the landscape and was deliberately set there to make a grand statement. This is the powerhouse, the seat of government. On one side of the dome is the House of Congress, and on the other, the House of Representatives.
The US Capitol building. There is a two mile long broad green strip which lies across Washington. From the Lincoln memorial in the West, through Constitution Gardens, past the Washington Monument and along the Mall to the US Capitol Building in the East. This area and the tidal basin to the south of it are just full of all the nation's most important monuments and memorials and one thing that Washington does well is memorials on a grand scale.
Washington is a city which serves the Capitol; there is no industry or big business. The city grew as more and more politicians and civil servants needed to have an office and a home near the central government building. With large numbers of people, catering and entertainment businesses are obviously attracted to serve that community but there is little else here and when you are aware of this you begin to wonder who all the grand memorials and monuments are for. Are they just self-aggrandizing? Are they there as a statement to the American people, to show what a great nation they are part of? Or a statement to the world? It seems the only people who are going to see these are tourists and the politicians and civil servants who live here. All other capitals that I have visited are great cities where the business of government makes up just a small part of the whole.
World War II memorial.On a very hot afternoon this girl takes advantage of the cool water in the WWII memorial with the Washington monument in the background.
Half way between Lincoln Memorial and the Washington monument is the National World War II memorial (pictured above and below).
Panorama of the WWII memorial. The grandest memorial of all is the Lincoln memorial. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States. He guided the country through its civil war, the greatest moral, constitutional and political crisis in the country's history and in doing so he preserved the Union, abolished slavery and strengthened the federal government. He was assassinated in 1865. The memorial is set at the top of a flight of steps where Abraham Lincoln is enthroned in a magnificent and imposing classical temple with a direct line of sight to the Washington monument and the Capitol beyond. Here he is raised to god-like status, worshiped and adored by all who come to pay homage.
This idolisation of past presidents seems odd until you ask yourself whether we do the same with our royal family. Well perhaps we do, but I don't feel that the comparison is entirely fair. In the shops you can buy all kinds of political souvenirs and paraphernalia featuring Barack and Michelle Obama and numerous past presidents but it doesn't stop there. The public are truly engaged in politics, which I suppose is a good thing, but for sale were Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump dolls, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps, chocolate bars, post cards and any number of other items advertising your political leaning. Add to this Donald Trump's political rallies (which put me in mind of the Nuremburg rallies) and the whole thing makes a reserved Englishman feel very uncomfortable. The temple of Abraham Lincoln. Above the temple in which Abraham Lincoln's statue is housed. (You see, I wasn't joking!)
If the Lincoln memorial is the grandest then the most imposing is the Washington Monument. 17 metres square at the base and 169 metres high this giant obelisk towers above the surrounding landscape and can be seen from miles around. It was built in 1884 to honour George Washington, first president of the United states. I believe that you can tell an awful lot about a culture by the TV that they watch and here the offering completely fails to inform, educate or entertain. Olympic coverage consisted of 5 minutes of mindless chatter followed by 10 minute ad breaks and about 30 seconds of actual sport by the end of which you are convinced that America is the only country taking part. News coverage is fatuous and sensationalistic, political reporting is sycophantic and very little seems to be newsworthy if it happened outside the USA.
Let me give an example. Towards the end of our stay we read on the internet that there had been a severe earthquake in central Italy so we switched on the TV news to find out what was happening. CNN would appear to be the most professional news network. They briefly announced that there had indeed been an earthquake in central Italy but before the adverts they spent 5 minutes interviewing a B-list US sports personality about how much his wife's cousin's hamster enjoyed watching baseball. After the adverts things began to improve marginally; we had a three minute sensationalised report on the human disaster story in Italy which focused on the fact that one woman's hand was sticking out of the rubble and she appeared to still be alive and that some of the buildings were "more than 200 years old" and so presumably they were about ready to fall down in any case. And anyway there had been an even bigger earthquake in Myanmar but there were no reports of any injuries and the news reporter didn't seem too sure where Myanmar was.
In the UK we are so lucky with our television service, and to anybody who complains about the BBC I say take a look at what is available in other countries and then shut up and pay your license fee! The Old Stone House in George Town.
We took a walk through Georgetown, which is easily in commutable reach of the city and has much more of a village feel to it and even has a little bit of age. The 'Old Stone House' pictured here was built in 1756 and is the oldest home and property in Washington DC. Almost new by European standards.
The museum of American History further emphasised this disconnection with historical context. I suppose when your country only has 400 years of history then something that is more than 200 years old is relatively ancient.
A fairly typical street in George Town. It is quite disconcerting when you see items in a museum that you remember from your childhood but here they had exhibits from as recent as 2014. I have socks in my drawer older than that! To be fair, that was in the section on household products and technology and the item in question was an iPhone which in a couple more years will be positively stone age technology.
Other sections helped me to understand more about the War of Independence and the American Civil War, on both of which I was shamefully vague.
The narrative on the Second World War was typically American. The story starts with America joining the war because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and concentrates on the D-Day landings during which it seems that the US army invaded Normandy and managed to win the war by bravely defeating the might of the German army. Oh and they might have had a bit of help from one or two dozen Brits and a Canadian, but they almost completely neglect to mention any of the other allied nations. Nor do they mention the fact that they were a bit late coming to the party in the first place.
The story ends with America winning the war in Japan by dropping two atomic bombs.
Statues in the Vietnam War memorial. One afternoon we walked around Arlington National Cemetery. As you can imagine this did not present the best opportunities for photography but did contain items of interest such as the grave of John F Kennedy, the tomb of the unknown soldier and a memorial to those who died in the disastrous space shuttle Challenger mission.
We also visited this memorial to those who died in the Vietnam conflict (left). There was an inscription nearby which read "Freedom is not free".
As I mentioned earlier there are several memorials around the edge of the tidal basin. The Martin Luther King memorial (below) had the inscription on the side "Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope".
The Martin Luther King memorial.
A little further round and this little dog was a small part of an extensive memorial to Franklin D Roosevelt.
Another temple (below right), this one housing the statue of Thomas Jefferson.
The welcome gate at the entrance to Washington's Chinatown (below left) with the animals of the Chinese calendar painted into the zebra crossing.
With a couple of hours spare before returning home we visited the Washington National Art Gallery (below). Unfortunately we didn't have enough time to do it justice and we each went our separate ways to see the exhibitions that were most interesting to us.
So is America the greatest nation on Earth? Well I suppose that depends on your definition of greatness. The British Empire was once great, ruling the world's seas and spanning the globe. But like every other empire before and since its success came at a price, at the expense of other nations, and expanded only to take advantage of the natural resources which rightfully belonged to the people of those countries.
The USA was not the first democracy. It was not the first to give women the vote, or abolish slavery, or have same sex marriages. They still have the death sentence in many states and their gun laws are a disgrace. America will truly be great when it bases its foreign policy not on influencing power in oil rich nations but on fairness, democracy and freedom and all the other values that it claims to hold so dear. They could make a start by giving back the Philippines and Hawaii to the people who truly own them, acknowledging the rights of the American Indians and giving some compensation to the few tribes who remain. They could acknowledge that Mexico is their neighbour and that the immigrants are not stealing jobs, they are doing the jobs that the average American doesn't want to do. In short this country has its good points and its bad just like any other civilised country, none of us are perfect. Iwo JimaThe US Marine Corps memorial incorporating the Iwo Jima statue.
And as for the birth-place of modern democracy? May I refer you to a little document called the Magna Carta, a copy of which you have in your very own Capitol building, and which dates back to 1215 AD. That's 405 years before the first 'Pilgrim Fathers' arrived in America and a full 561 years before American independence, so go back to your history books and do some research before you start telling English tourists that you invented democracy. That honour actually falls originally to the Greeks!
I am patriotic but would I, or any other Englishman, stand on a street corner and declare in a loud voice "I LOVE ENGLAND"? No. Because, well that just wouldn't be British.
I am very glad that we did this trip but I would not be in a great hurry to return to either of these cities. I will probably return to America at some point to give the country the benefit of the doubt, there are still a few places on my list to visit. Although we had a great time I have never been so pleased to get home at the end of a holiday.
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