- Alice Degelle
Travel Diary: USA
We are sitting in a car park while giant trucks race along the highway next to us. It's 10:30 pm and the pub we were sitting in is closing. The air is still hot, but there is a slight breeze. Or maybe it is the wind from the trucks. Texas invites us to dream. The wide skies and landscapes, the rolling hills, the summer thunderstorms and the neon signs of the fast food restaurants. My most formative impressions of Texas so far have been from "Friday Night Lights" and "Preacher" and although these impressions couldn't be more different, they are both true. I often have this feeling in the U.S. Knowing a place without having ever seen it before. When I think about how long it takes for me to feel at home in other places, the U.S. always stands out as a place where I feel immediately at home.
We are in New Orleans and we are standing in front of a flood wall. The Mississippi behind it has destroyed the city too many times for people to live with the river. There are only two places inside the city where the river is not behind a wall. The last time, during Hurricane Katrina, a major shipping company had not moved one of its ships, which then breached the wall - into one of the poorest neighbourhoods of the city. Most of the other neighbourhoods were less badly hit. This is a very US-American story for me. Chance and the forces of nature always hit the poorest, the least white.
I'm in Dallas and it's getting dark. During the day I went to see the place where John F. Kennedy was shot. The road is conveniently marked with two crosses at the places where the bullets hit him. Someone wanted to explain to me what conspiracy led to Kennedy's death, but $5 sounded too expensive for the truth. Instead, I went to the souvenir shop and bought a postcard showing a blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy.
In Memphis, I am standing at the Mississippi again. In this city, Martin Luther King Jr. died. In front of the museum built in his honour at the Lorraine Motel (in front of which he was shot in 1968), a woman with a protest stand is standing: 'Honor MLK's memory, make the Lorraine Motel a place for homeless and impoverished people'. The protest is not unfounded, but ultimately fruitless. Of course, the civil rights movement was a movement for the poor and working class - MLK was in Memphis in 1968 to support striking black workers - but their memory serves another purpose: US identity building. The woman has been there for 23 years.
In St.Louis, I see the Mississippi for the last time. I am sitting in an expensive country club, the Golf Masters have been here before, the club has its own Wikipedia page and is furnished with expensive antiques. Michael, the husband of an old friend, tells me he gave up his doctorate in moral philosophy because US academics have a problem with unresolved issues. Philosophy, Michael says, only serves to confirm certain values in the US. He is now studying law.
I fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, and quickly ask myself why I decided to stay here for two nights. The No. 1 tourist spot in Charlotte is the Billy Graham Library. Billy Graham was probably the most famous televangelist ever, after his death he was laid out in the Capitol for the nation to say goodbye. He believed, of course, that homosexuality was a sin and women belonged to the cooker. So I look at his 'library'. It's a kind of museum. There's a whole room dedicated to the Berlin Wall because Billy Graham once preached in East Berlin and now boasts that he helped tear down the wall. After this room I leave. In my head, I continue the list of US Americans who believe they’ve destroyed the Wall: Ronald Reagan, David Hasselhoff, Billy Graham. The starting point of every world event is the USA.
Washington D.C. is where my journey and understanding ends. The US is close to my heart, I have lived here and some of my best friends live and are from here. I love being here and I especially love the southern states very much because of their friendliness and the feeling of having arrived. They have a very special magic that appeals to me. But in a planned city built by enslaved people in a swamp to simply demonstrate how great and free its land is, nothing of that magic is left.
This is where what always makes me frown, what makes me fundamentally doubt the country and its people, reveals itself: This extremely insecure patriotism that cannot allow contradictions and complexities because it would break down. If Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the U.S. Constitution, kept slaves, then he was 'one of the good slaveholders'.
If this Billy Graham was smart and influential, then yes, he can't be wrong when it comes to women and homosexuality. If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought against such defining characteristics of the U.S. as segregation, poverty and unequal treatment, then he was not fighting against U.S. society, but of course for the original American value of freedom.
The moral (of) any story about the U.S. is that the U.S. is great.