Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Saved by the Bell 

Philadelphia is probably most famous for being home to the playground where Will Smith spent most of his days, it being the place where he was born and raised, but putting aside pisspoor sitcoms which can't hold a candle to Blossom, it's also the place where the Liberty Bell resides and both the Declaration of Independence and the American Consitutition were signed, so we thought we might as well check out a few sites relating to them.

The Liberty Bell Centre and the Independence Park area are staffed by people who don't look as embarrassed as people wearing period costume really should. The Bell itself is an important piece of American cultural ephemera, if only for it's engraving regarding liberty existing throughout the land, as there's no actual evidence that it actually rang when the Declaration of Independence was signed, but why let facts get in the way of a good story?

Of more interest, and of more historical accuracy, is Independence Hall, where the Declaration was signed, although obviously it wasn't called that back then, as that would have required remarkable foresight from the founding fathers of Philly. No, it's original name was The Can't Wait Until We're Free of the Bloody Brits and their Taxes Tower, which might have been what started all the trouble between us and them in the first place. The hall, as well as containing the courtroom, also had a room which was available to be booked and used for meetings by local groups and other interested committees. It was being used for this purpose when the constitution was being hammered out. Getting agreement between the States wasn't easy, compromise was seen as an ugly word and there were major splits on many issues between the Northern and Southern states, most notably about whether slavery was a bad thing or not. We'd have thought this would have been quite easy to resolve, what with the apparently self evident truth that all men were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but no matter. Eventually, the Constitution was signed, partly because had the discussions, by which they mean arguments, gone on for any longer the fledgling country would have dissolved before it had a chance to develop, but mainly because the bowling club had booked the hall for their AGM and they were getting a bit uppity.

The Hall itself, and the other associated buildings, are pretty well preserved; George Washington's chair is still intact, as is the original Senate and House of Representatives, but the usual American vagueness with regards to the actual details and historical accuracy is still very much in evidence. For example, on display is an inkwell which might possibly have been used by Washington during one of the signings, but it's still quite awe-inspiring to be in a place of such history, even if it is a history which says that we're a bunch of bastards.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

The Streets of... 

Leaving behind the current American capital, we instead head towards the original capital, Philadelphia. It was a shame to say goodbye to Washington, particularly to the 150 panda statues that can be found on virtually every street corner, each decorated in a unique, and not always panda-esque style. Our personal favourite was the one sitting on a double yellow line, covered in parking tickets with a clamp attatched to it's paw. What we're not sad to leave behind, however, is the cicadas. These are quite horrible insects which are basically a cross between butterflies and cockroaches, only without the natural beauty of the butterfly. Or even the cockroach, for that matter. They only appear once every 17 years, so it's sods law that we've encountered them, despite the odds being clearly against it. The streets are festooned with them. Their only redeeming feature is the fact that they're essentially blind, being more used to life underground, so they provide entertainment when they try to land as they either crash into the ground at a rate of knots, or just stop a foot or so above the ground, plummeting the rest of the distance. Quite why they come out every 17 years is something of a mystery - providing an opportunity for large chunks of your population to get squashed isn't the best way to ensure survival of the species - but then, who knows why any hideous creature would seek out the limelight? Perhaps we should ask Sam and Mark?

Philly, though, lacks these creatures, thankfully, so it should hopefully be a good place to reside for the next few days.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Clouded Judgement 

We refused to give in to the temptation of the mattress this morning and acquired tickets for a lunchtime trip up the Washington Monument. After passing through the security checks you get whisked up 500ft in an elevator to the viewing station at the top of the tower where, on a clear day, you can see all around for about 60 miles and it's all rather impressive and stunning. Unfortunately it wasn't a clear day when we went up - rain fell heavily from the sky - and all we saw from the top was a very good close up of the inside of a cloud.

While that may not have been quite the amazing experience we'd been hoping for, it did help split up our visit to the Smithsonian American History Museum. The Smithsonians are a rather impressive feat, founded in 1846 thanks to a bequest by James Smithson, they own 16 museums and galleries in the city of Washington, all world leaders in their various fields, an have a collection so vast that only 1% of it is on display at any one time. What is most interesting about it is that James Smithson had never even visited the US, but made his donation for the betterment of the country anyway, clearly in a "Let's smarten up the dumb Yanks" kinda way. No matter what his motivation was, the results made it more than worthwhile as, other than our trip to the monument, we spent all day in just one of their museums and only just managed to see all that was on offer.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Metal Mickey 

We fully intended to get up early today and go and get tickets to go up the Washington Monument and enjoy the view. These tickets are distributed on a first come, first served basis and, unless you're there by 8AM, you ain't gonna get any. Unfortunately when our alarm went off at the appointed hour, we decided we really couldn't be arsed getting out of bed, so promptly went back to sleep for a couple of hours.

Once we did finally decide that it's probably not the best idea to spend the better part of the trip of a lifetime in bed, we went back down towards the Lincoln Memorial, this time with the intention of visiting the Vietnam Memorial. We don't recommend you do the same as it's rubbish; a massive 'V' of black marble cut into the land bearing the names of all those who died during the conflict. It's a blot on the landscape, really, which is quite appropriate given the stain the conflict itself has left behind on American History.

From there we continued, in an admittedly slightly morbid vein, to Arlington Cemetery where the majority of America's war dead are buried. It's also home to the third most visited tomb in the country, JFK's, but, to be honest, while people who go there will visit it, it's not why they go there. Wandering through the cemetery is a very sobering, though not depressing, experience. It's possible to head towards one of the high points of the cemetery - in a literal, not a figurative sense - look down, and all you can see is row after row of uniform white crosses stretching out as far as the eye can see. As it's Memorial Day weekend, in addition all the graves have the flag of the soldier's birth country. Many of the people we saw there were there with a purpose, visiting the grave of a lost loved one. As Arlington is still an active cemetery, the age range of visitors stretched from the unexpectedly old to the depressingly young. Surely no more pressing argument for the futility of war exists than this place?

As we, thankfully, lacked purpose for our visit, we went to pay our respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We arrived in time for the Changing of the Guard ceremony and despite, or more likely because of, the solemnity of the occasion, we found the whole thing inwardly hilarious, though weren't quite stupid enough to let our amusement show. The reason for our hidden laughter is this:- the ceremony essentially involves the replacement guards weapon being checked for cleanliness by the Sergeant. It's all done in a number of fluid, slow movements in a very machine-like fashion, which was the problem for us. With the shades and fixed, unsmiling expression that the Sergeant was wearing, we were immediately put in mind of extremely dodgy eighties style robotic dancing and, once that thought had entered our head nothing was able to shake it and, with hindsight, mentally singing Kraftwerk songs to ourselves probably didn't help matters.

In the evening we sat on the steps on the Capitol in the rain and watched the National Memorial Day concert, an evening of music and flagwaving which made us feel proud to be an American, if only for fear of what the audience might do to us if we didn't express such pride. The most striking thing about this event was that there was no way on earth that anything similar would ever take place in the UK as, thankfully, we're not as blinded by an unthinking patriotism in the same way that certain sections of the US public are. This was an event where people turned up wearing jackets covered with stars and stripes and wore them with pride, not with the embarrassment that you'd expect such a fashion faux pas to cause. An event where the singing of the national anthem causes grown men to place one hand on their heart and use the other one to wipe away a tear from their eyes, rather than the self-conscious mumbling and shuffling that would happen and home and which is natural and proper. An event where some country music star performing the worst song which we have ever heard get applauded and cheered, rather than getting booed off. Clearly we still have a lot to learn about American culture.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Capitol Idea 

Through accident, rather than design, we've ended up in the nation's Capital on Memorial Day weekend. This is essentially the same as our Rememberance Sunday, only taken far more seriously. This is partly down to the patriotic pride which covers the lands like Westlife cover poor quality ballads, but is probably more down to the fact that it unofficially signals the start of the summer, rather than respect for those fallen in wartime.

But, no matter what the reason, the fact remains that it's a fully observed holiday here and, in Washington, it's even more special than normal as today President Bush is dedicating the World War II Memorial in front of the biggest gathering of veterans since the end of the war, though presumably they were just soldiers then, rather than veterans. This event has not only caused the city to be on a heightened state of security, but also has dramatically increased the sales of Steradent within the local environs.

As well as the dedication itself, the veterans - and interested members of the public - are also able to wander around a WWII festival style thing set up along the National Mall. Kinda like an old person's Glastonbury, or Glastonbury on a Sunday as it's otherwise known. As well as a stage featuring various bands from that era, there were also exhibits of Armed Forces vehicles, a reunion tent, talks and opportunities to share memories. Oh, and a tent where children - and our Travelling Companion - could take part in activities to learn about the war and get awarded a medal for their troubles. We had a quick wander round before heading into the first public building we've been able to visit here - The National Capitol.

For a building it's in remarkably good shape, despite being burned down by the British, undergoing numerous restructuring and rebuilding work and suffering the final indignity - being blown up by the aliens in Independence Day. As befits the political centre of the country, it's asuitably impressive building, even if it is essentially just a bigger version of the State Capitol's we've visited previously, only with stepper security and a greater likelyhood of being shot if you wander away from the designated route. You don't get to see inside the Senate and the House of Representatives, again this is sometihng that needs to be organised in advance, but you do get to see some of the more artistically interesting, if politically irrelevant, sections of the building.

Upon leaving the Capitol, the dedication ceremony was already in full swing, although that may not be the most appropriate description for a rather sombre event being attended by an audience for whom swinging is nought but a distant memory. As we were there, we felt we should get involved, so picked a spot and watched it on a big screen set up in the grounds of the Capitol for the event. We arrived just in time to see Bush give his speech, a speech which, rather surprisingly, was not used to justify the war in Iraw. Or, at least, it dind't as long as you dind't look between the lines. We, being of a somewhat cynical persuasion, did and all we can say is not particularly original or witty, but it's still very apt; "Bush is a war-mongering twat with a small penis".

Friday, May 28, 2004

We C/DC 

We said goodbye to our original hostel today and moved onto our second place of residence which had, alas, been booked solid last night. It was no great sadness to leave the previous place as, not only was the experience soured by the taxi debacle, but also the place considered fitting 9 people into a room the size of your average bathroom was a good accommodation idea, rather than an interesting way of getting into the Guinness Book of Records. They managed to achieve this seemingly impossible feat by virtue of triple bunk-beds. Being in the middle is not a good place to be, as we can now personally vouch for.

After checking into the second, slightly more luxurious hostel - 3 normal bunkbeds in a room big enough to accommodate them! - we went for a walk around the nation's capital. It's all rather impressive, lots of white marble and imposing statuery, but we should point out that we were staying not hugely far from the Mall, the government centre and touristy bit. What you see on the telly during the news, basically. We understand that outside of this area, poverty is rife, crime is high and there's a lot less white marble and more graffiti. It's still imposing, we believe, albeit in an entirely different way.

First stop was the White House Visitor Centre, where we had hoped to book a tour around the place which George W Bush calls 'home', if only because he doesn't know what 'domicile' means, but this dream was quickly shattered when we discovered that the only way foreigners, i.e. us, can get a tour is by contacting our embassy, a process which they reckon takes around 6 months. Even if we had been desperate enough to see it and decided to extend our stay in Washington dramatically, our visa wouldn't have lasted out and we're not entirely convinced that the federal centre is the best place to hide out as an illegal immigrant.

So, slightly disappointed that we didn't have the chance to bring down the administration from the inside, we went down to have a brief look at it anyway, though 'brief' is very much the operative term as you can't exactly see a great deal thanks to the size of the grounds and all the trees but this, presumably, is the point.

From there we went to have a quick look at the Washington Monument, before going to visit the recently finished World War II Memorial. We had some trepidation about visiting this as the papers here have been full of criticism about it, describing it as an architectural monstrosity. Having seen it, we must disagree and, of course, our opinion is far more valid than any expert in the field. It's certainly big. You walk into it and you're immediately overwhelmed by the granite pillars towering above you - one for each state and territory that fought - but that's the point. The war was overwhelming and, while we will never be able to fully comprehend what it must have been like to live during that period, we feel it's important, perhaps more so now than ever, to remind people that war is a bloody and horrible think and should only be entered into as a last resort, not as a strategy to get you a second term in office.

After spending some time there, we headed towards the Lincoln memorial via the Reflecting Pool. On first encounter you immediately reflect upon how manky the water is, but as you walk along, the stillness and tranquility does help you enter a zen like state which gives you time to think, even if your thoughts do eventually return to reflecting upon the dirtiness of the water and just how the ducks are able to survive in it.

Following our visits to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, both of which feature giant statues of the respective Presidents, at least, we assume they're gigantic. We guess they could be life size, in which case they both governed in a manner that's more like Gulliver in Lilliput than the history books let on, we walked down to the Franklin D Roosevelt memorial, a walled area featuring fountains, statues and quotes carved into the masonry. It's a fitting memorial for a respected president, but we do have to question whether it was really appropriate for his to be in place long before the one for the dead soldiers.

Still trying to overcome our sadness at missing out on the White House, we went down to the FBI headquarters to enquire about their tours, only to discover that they've been cancelled until 2006, which isn't a great deal of use to us. So, crushed in a way we haven't been since we found out that Nicola Roberts didn't even make the top 100, let alone the number one spot, in FHM's sexiest women poll, we instead decided to add to our list of "Places where Presidents have been shot which we've visited" by going to Ford's Theatre where Abraham Lincoln got shot in a quite frankly piss-poor attempt to gain independence for the southern states. The only Presidential assassination more misguided than this was the guy who tried to kill Reagan in a bid to impress Jodie Foster. Still, at least Lincoln's killer was successful and able to sloganeer in Latin straight afterwards, something which is beyond most blood crazed killers.

Thursday, May 27, 2004


Well, it had to happen eventually. We've managed to avoid it so far, but our luck ran out this afternoon - we got mugged. Not, thankfully, in the violent, knife-wielding, fear inducing, "Gimmie all your money" style, but in the dodgy taxi driver over-charging us by 20 dollars vibe.

In our defence, we weren't quite with it when we got in the taxi, having just spent 17 hours on an overnight bus trip from Nashville, so when we arrived in Washington DC we were about as intellectually sharp as a butter knife wielded by Jenny Frost. As a result of this, when we left the station to try and find a taxi rank, when some random bloke came up to us and asked if we wanted one, we just said "yeah, sure", without thinking about asking how much it was going to cost. Alas, once you arrive at your destination and find out just how much he's doing you by, there's not a great deal you can do given that your luggage is locked up in the boot. Hopefully we'll have learnt an important lesson from this but, given that the only lesson we've ever learnt is that we never learn our lessons, we very much doubt this.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Famous Polka 

Last day in Nashville today, so we paid a visit to the Tennessee State Capitol. We're beginning to become sometihng of an expert on these buildings now and they all seem to follow the same basic design - big rotunda which isn't quite as impresive as the national Capitol, lots of paintings of former governers, many marble corridors leading off in a confusing manner, similar to that of the David Bowie film, Labyrinth, and a ridculous amount of locked doors. They're all designed to give off a sense of power and prestige, while still remaining relatively open, though with all the security checks which are no de-rigeur in the US, they're not as open as they might be. Tennessee's Capitol meets all the requirements, but does have the added bonus of having former President James K Polk's tomb in the grounds. While this may not sound hugely interesting to you, the reader, it excited us as we're fans of They Might Be Giants, and they once wrote a song about him, thus making him the only past president that we actually know anything about.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Opry Winfrey 

We went to visit the Grand Ole Opry today. It was the weekly radio show that was broadcast from this venue that can take responsibility for the success and popularity of Country music in the US. You'd have thought that by now that villagers would have taken matters into their own hands, as they normally do with works of pure evil, and had at the benue with burning torches, but no matter, it still staands, albeit in a different location to the original as new theatres had to be built to cope with the constantly rising demand for tickets. Modern day radio shows can only dream of such a concept, we can't exactly see visitors clamouring at the door of the BBC desperate for a chance to sit in on Colin and Edith. Hmmm, maybe it's time for the burning torches again.

Incidentally, to get to the Grand Ole Opry we passed by both the Gaylord Employment Center and the Gaylord University. We don't know why we're mentioning this as, once again, we failed to find anything whatsoever funny about it.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Alt Country 

As New Orleans is to Jazz and Memphis is to the Blues, so Nashville is to Country and, unlike any other city would be if they were linked to that particular genre, they're actually proud of the fact. We've never got country, to be honest. Other than a fondness for occasional alt.country tracks, Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers' The Gambler, it's never been a style of music we've enjoyed, let alone understood why anyone with ears enjoys it. It often speaks of sadness without actually expressing that particular emotion while the more uptempo numbers just make you glad that neither you, nor anyone you know, owns a pair of cowboy boots. It's also, despite the common theme of love, a curiously sexless form of music; you rarely feel there's any sort of passion there. The closest it ever really gets to raw excitement is stuff like Faith Hill's This Kiss, Shania Twain's Still The One and the Dixie Chicks, and for these songs to achieve their not-quite-knocking-on-Christina's-door style of sexyness all they do is appropriate their tricks from the pop and rock scenes, leading you to wonder what, other than the rack they get placed in at the record store, actually makes them a country artist?

To try and find out more about justy why Country is so popular, admittedly amongst people of a certain age, we took a trip to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, located just down the road from the Gaylord Entertainment Center which we still certainly don't find in any way amusing. It's an excellent place and helped give us a better historical perspective on why this style of music is so popular to so many people, even though we still feel that, ultimately, no matter how many disaffected voices it may be speaking for, the fact that the music is entirely rubbish should really remain a stumbling block for it's success.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Nashville Communication 

Once again the bulk of our time today was spent on the bus as we left Memphis and travelled down the highway to Nashville. On arrival we needed to find out how to get to our hotel so we headed straight to the Visitor Centre which is located inside the Gaylord Entertainment Center. We'd like to point out that we found this in no way amusing. Honestly.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

It's Sun, And It Makes Us Shine 

Continuing our mission to 'do' Elvis, and not in that sense, that's just wrong in so many ways, we visited Sun studios today. This is were a young, fresh faced Elvis went to make a vanity recording to give as a gift to his mother, a recording which was heard by Sam Phillips who signed him to his new record label and thus history was made. Nowadays, of course, Elvis would have entered Pop Idol and been voted off in Week 4; the public favouring a grinning, floppy haired boy who can hit all the right notes but who has the personality of a gerbil, and a particularly dull gerbil at that. But, no matter, it happened the way it did and nothing, barring Marty Mc Fly and a Guinness Book of Hit Singles from the future, is going to change that.

First up was a short tour around a small museum where we were given a chance to hear some of the recordings which made Sun famous, and not just Elvis stuff, though we did get a chance to hear the very first radio play of his very first single, That's Alright Mama, a play that was so popular with the audience, it was played another 13 times duting the 3 hour long show. This sort of repetition provided the template which commercial radio still follows today.

We were then taken downstairs to the studio itself, which has been fully restored to it's original state with the genuine fixtures and fittings. This includes the very microphone which all the singers of the time, including Elvis, sang into. Unlike similar historical artifacts this was touchable and you were happily encouraged to have your picture taken while holding, strutting behind it and pretty much doing whatever you pleased with it. You couldn't, however, as our tour guide made very clear, lick the microphone. The fact that this warning needed to be given slightly worried us, but then he added, to make us even more scared, "Believe me, you don't want to know where people have wanted to put that microphone.". Instandly we did know and felt very ill indeed.

If you wish to follow in Elvis's footsteps, you're still able to make your own recording for $30, on CD though, in a concession to the modern world, and hope that you'll get discovered. We decided that the world wasn't ready for our unique interpretation of the works of Shampoo, so we decided not to invest our pennies.

We also went to the Rock and Soul Museum. We have nothing amusing to say about this, not that stopped us going on about Sun Studios for 4 paragraphs, but we'll simply say that it's excellent and well worth a visit should you find yourself in this neck of the woods.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Gracelands of Make Believe 

We went to Gracelands today, hooray! Please look at Talent in a Previous Life for details. In the evening we went down to Beale Street, the home of the blues, to catch some live music, have a couple of drinks and generally have a good time. As it was, we may have been extremely lucky as we had the joys of caztching a gig by Howlin' Wolf. Who believe is rather famous in Blues circles, though to be honest we're not a great expert in that musical form and we could quite easily be getting him confused with Steppenwulf, the other thing is that we also believed he was dead, which doesn't lend a lot of credence to it actually being him. If you know for certain then, please, let us know. Thanks!

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Walking in Memphis 

Of course, while drinking alcohol seems a great idea at the time, it rarely seems quite so fantastic the next morning, particularly when you have to get up early the next morning to catch a a bus to your next destination. No matter, we didn't have any choice but to get out of bed and drag ourselves down to the bus station, whereupon we promptly spent the entire trip in a state of fitful dozyness. On our return to the land of the awake and alert we discovered we had arrived in Memphis, which was a nice surprise. The warm fuzzyness of this lasted until we got to our hotel (no hostels in Memphis, alas) and discovered exactly how much we were being charged for a, quite frankly, rubbish room. Grr, we haven't been this cross since R Kelly kept both Girls Aloud and S Club off the number one spot and believe us, we were very cross then.