Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Home Country

 I'm writing this as we're about to fly back to Chile.
We started in Puerto Williams...
...then took the flight to Punta Arenas...
...then, magically, landed in summer in the suburbs.  The kids
didn't comment on the transition at all
We've just spent five weeks visiting both of our families in the US.

A need to renew a couple of  passports got Eric and Alisa and
me a day trip Manhattan to visit the Australian consulate 
Our perspective on this country is now firmly expatriate.  We've never lived as a family in the US.  Even though the focus of this trip was entirely on seeing our extended families, our visit also gave us a chance to catch up on how things are going with the 4% of the world population that lives in America.

In other words: visiting the home country is a travel experience for us.

But the US is big enough, and fractured enough by its various tribalisms (red state/blue state, the race hierarchy) that you don't need to be an expat to find terra incognita in the country: there are plenty of good travel experiences available for resident Americans in America.

To whit: one of the things that is impossible to miss is how segregated America continues to be.  My extended family is racially mixed, but when it comes to integrated situations with strangers - in the milieu that we inhabit, those most often occur when black service workers are interacting with white customers.  After a lifetime of being American, I have yet to have a black American friend.  I'm reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie just now and she has a great humorous take on that state of affairs.  Don't blame the white American liberal, says a character.  Of course they don't have black friends.  There just aren't enough middle-class blacks in the country to go around.

So one of my ideas for a travel experience on this visit to the US?  To take the boys to Hot Sauce Williams, the barbecue place around the corner from an apartment I rented in the late 1980s.

Without doing something self-conscious like that, my boys wouldn't know what it's like to be in a black neighborhood.

But, as things worked out, we never made it there...

Not that my boys would have necessarily taken much notice of being in a black neighborhood.  I don't spend time thinking about the good and bad things that they have missed by growing up on a boat.  But if I did,  the soul-corroding exposure to racism would be on the list of things they've been lucky to miss so far.  At one point on the visit, I forget where, Eric looked around and said, "There's a lot of dark-skinned people here!"

I think that most white American five year olds have already learned that race is a taboo subject that can't be referred to in a public setting in that way.  They've picked up the strange white American habit of insisting that they don't see race.  (Or am I wrong?  Are land-based five-year-old Americans still innocent of the weight of our cultural preoccupation with race?  If so, let me know.)

In general, spending time in a majority black setting is one of the finest travel experiences going for white Americans.  I got a lot of that in New Orleans, in the early 1990s, when a friend of mine was in the Little Rascals Brass Band and I got to tag along to the second line.  At that point the social aid and pleasure clubs and second lines were getting exactly no notice from outside their native neighborhoods, and my memory is that we sometimes went the whole afternoon, in a crowd of thousands of people, without seeing a white person we hadn't come with.

Which is a very powerful experience for a white American.

Especially if you can imagine an alternate universe in which all those black people are the ones doing the hiring, except that they don't like to hire people with non-traditional names like "Mike".

 After we were done at the consulate we stopped at the Museum of Modern Art to take in the iconic works.  And there we discovered a new trend in cultural consumerism.  People just walk up to the iconic treasures of western culture, snap a picture on their phones, and then walk over to the next iconic treasure to snap another picture.  Surely the point is to take a moment to enjoy the original, rather than making yet another reproduction of these paintings?

Eric and Marc Chagall
But all of this is a very long digression on one small part of our experience of coming back to America.

This is a sailing blog, of course.  But if you sail the world long enough your relationship with the place you left becomes part of the story.

Taking the subway downtown

Can you hear it?  

You must take the A Train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem

We also took in Elias' first-ever baseball game
And went walking in mountain meadows in the Rockies.  Lucky us...
We've enjoyed every day of our stay here in the heart of the northern summer.  But now that we're returning, I think we'll also be glad to resume our life aboard Galactic.


  1. It was so much fun to see you all, to laugh to chat and to hug. The hugs were great, although getting them makes one realize they are still pretty far apart. Luckily I got a 'hug fix' from all. Safe travels, Noe

    1. Thanks, Noe, it was great. Until next time!

  2. "I have yet to have a black American friend".........."soul-corroding exposure to racism".."spending time in a majority black setting is one of the finest travel experiences going for white Americans." Tooo many contradictions here.......seems as a your a white guy with never a black friend, the soul-corroding racism might be within and the reason for never a black friend. As birds of a feather flock together how many black friends have you had at the many anchorages you tout about?

    1. So critical. Don't you have anything of your own to express? Even have a name?