Category Archives: American Travel

Perusals from the Botanical Gardens – The Pros and Cons of Living and Learning Abroad

Hello! I’m Emma, and I’m a third-year student from the University of East Anglia. This past September, I embarked on the most intimidating journey I have been on in my life: moving five and a half thousand miles from home for ten months to study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). And as I sit here in the UCLA Botanical Garden – a place that has quickly gone from quaint novelty to my writer’s haven – observing this bizarre juxtaposition of plants from Californian cacti to English lavender to Chinese palm and beyond, I can’t help but think of how they all seem so simultaneously out of place yet fit together perfectly on this campus. It’s a sensation I’ve become very familiar with recently, and one that I’ve realised is an ingrained and essential part of my time here in California.

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The Familiar Meets the Unfamiliar… But with Trees

Anyone who knew me before this journey started would say that I was the most unlikely person in the world to venture on this path. I was a home bird who had never been so far from the U.K. – the girl who once cried to her friend in an airport at the end of a rare two-week trip because she was so desperate to get home – so the thought of studying abroad never once crossed my mind. I couldn’t possibly afford it, nor would I want to risk getting settled in a place and then having to move on. Travel just wasn’t for me. Then UEA’s American Studies department stepped in. Rescuing me from self-inflicted chaos on results day, the department didn’t just offer me a place on an unexpected course, but they set me on a path to discovering a love for the interdisciplinary study of America, be it politics, history, film or a whole world of cultural studies previously unknown to me. An integral part of that would be stepping out of my comfort zone and facing my fears of flying and distance to experience a year at an American university, a journey which has both challenged and inspired me on my way to making me a better academic, and – I hope – a more informed and adaptable person.

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On top of the world in Boulder, Colorado

I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t had to face some of my worries in the past few months. One of the big ones that almost stopped me entertaining the thought in the first place was money. It almost goes without saying, but living in California is probably going to cost you more than you’re anticipating! I had to pick my jaw up off the floor the first time I saw how much orange juice costs here! Figuring out the exchange rate and learning more than ever how to tightly budget (all whilst having a world of new and often expensive experiences at your fingertips) forces you to become better at planning, which has never been my forte. So firstly, a very, very important thank you to the Walker family and the 2nd Air Division Memorial Trust: the existence of the Charles L Walker scholarship, which I was so honoured to receive last year, has enabled me to glimpse what America has to offer outside of Los Angeles. It gave me the opportunity to examine the heart of literary and cultural movements which have long fascinated me in San Francisco, and it helped me reunite with old friends in Sacramento and in Boulder, Colorado, for awe-inspiring (and indeed poetry inspiring) mountain-top views and a proper American Thanksgiving I will never forget!

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Red brick buildings are a very familiar sight at UCLA

Another fear of mine was struggling to settle in to a new environment. This was partially allayed the moment I stepped onto UCLA’s campus. The sea of aesthetically pleasing red-brick buildings that make up the North campus have a sense of grandeur that makes it seem far older than its years, and also incredibly easy to get lost in when you’re in a hurry. The massive student body – and the wider Californian community – is comprised of so many people who are often happy to jump into random conversation with you in the most unexpected (and occasionally unwelcome) places, in that way that Americans can manage without it becoming an awkward-stranger-on-the-London-Underground experience we are used to. The vibrant sports scene allows you to stand in the student section of the Rose Bowl with a large group of international students to moan together about how long American football lasts, then become obsessed with water polo alongside an equally captivated American friend just 24 hours later. Those stereotypical questions you worry you don’t quite know how to answer – “What does [insert British colloquialism here] mean? What do you think about Trump/American politics/Brexit/British politics? What do you think of my attempt of your accent?” – definitely do rear their head every once in a while, although far more often prefaced with “oh my God, you have an Australian accent!” (Spoiler: I don’t…) And with every single question, I get a little tinge of homesickness, alongside a bucketful of opportunities to learn just as much about the other person as they are able to learn from me.

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Some lost international students exploring their new home

However, if there is one word to sum up what this experience has given me these past few months and continues to give me on a daily basis even now, it’s self-confidence. It really does take learning in the American college system to appreciate how much it differs from life back at UEA. UCLA has such an incredible range of classes on offer that has opened doors to areas I never thought I would be able to explore: from disability law to Native American languages, there’s a plethora of topics you’d never encounter in our more specialized degrees. And while the breadth of study can be a little bit strange at first, and I’m not sure I’d seek a full undergraduate degree here as opposed to in Britain, it has undoubtedly enticed me into trying my hand at things I had never dared to do. Don’t understand public policy? Give it a go! Never thought about taking education classes? Think about it now! Trying new things and succeeding at them has made the undoable seem do-able and given me so many ideas of where I want to go, academically and beyond. The professors I’ve had the pleasure of working with have been nothing but encouraging, giving me faith in myself to pursue academia further than I thought I could and a sense of accomplishment in my work that I had never reached previously. And with some of the great names associated with UCLA, I’ve even had the opportunity to take writing workshops with a poet whose own work had inspired me to start writing poetry before I even knew I was coming here: that alone has been an experience I will never forget!

So, I suppose the message I’m gradually learning to open my heart to is to welcome the unexpected. Make the most of the opportunities thrown your way, even if they scare you at first. And when you’re sat over five thousand miles from home and your friend says, “do you miss it?” remember that it’s okay for your first response to be yes, and maybe when you’re back in rainy little Norwich and someone asks you the same question of Los Angeles, your response might just be yes then as well.

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Another Letter From Vermont: Charles Walker Scholarship Recipient Charlie Pritchard

The Crumbling of the Mountain State

Donald Trump’s promises to bring back coal jobs to West Virginia tapped into sentiment which the dispossessed of West Virginia had longed to hear – that, if only for a few seconds, manual labour could once again occupy a standing of nobility in antithesis to the vexing realm of automation. West Virginia remains a woefully underfunded state – it bears disreputable statistics from the highest obesity rate, the highest smoking rate and the highest level of drug related deaths in the U.S. Throughout the twentieth century, West Virginia had been location of the most intense episodes of industrial strife, testified by such incidents as the Paint Creek Strike of 1912 and the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. Following the Great Depression and World War II, union activity continued, yet the environmental implications of contemporary struggles have shifted the debate dramatically. The development of mountaintop removal mining practised through automated technology has caused myriad problems for local residents. During the process waste is often disposed into nearby rivers leading to reservoirs, polluting drinking water and causing floods when these blockages break under heavy rainfall.

During the first week of February, myself and a group of Middlebury College students set out for the Appalachian South Folklife Center in the small village of Pipestem to work with local communities and activists and learn the contemporary struggles facing the state. The site is run by Tim, who is originally from Santa Barbara, California, who came to West Virginia during the Civil Rights struggle, where he met Don West, a radical unionist and preacher who founded the ASFC as a hideout for Left dissidents. The ASFC typically receives students from colleges across America during the spring and summer breaks, so our group largely had the Center to ourselves.

 

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Appalachian South Folklife Center

 

Tim teaches music at a local elementary school and can often be found playing the banjo with his wife at an open-mic night in the local town of Princeton. Tim however works intensely at establishing cooperative relationships with community organisations; the Princeton Arts Collective, The Wade Center (a non-profit school for children) and the Bluefield Union Mission (a food bank and community welfare organisation). Tim seemed optimistic about the progress made in Princeton. Once a declining mining town, a group of local artists and musicians organised arts projects to stimulate the town’s economy. Down side alleys, they painted murals, and encouraged contributions from local painters. A common haunt is the Riff-Raff, the bottom floor a shop dealing in sculptures and crafts, and upstairs a club showcasing musical talent in the neighborhood.

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Princeton, West Virginia

 

Much of the ASFC’s work, however, is devoted to home repairs for locals who are unable to afford ordinary repair services, often including households damaged as a result of mountaintop removal mining. The repairman Greg exudes enthusiasm for his job, at being able to work alongside students not only from elsewhere in the US but across the world. ‘Most of the people I get come from around Chicago, but I get people from all over’ he tells us, ‘even from China and Japan’. He set us off repairing the roof of a woman’s trailer which had been damaged from heavy rainfall, which we managed to fix in 5 days.

The next day, Tim introduced us to the Bluefield Union Mission, which donates food and blankets to struggling families. The Union Mission had been functioning since the Great Depression, though its diner dining hall had gradually transformed into take-away shelter. In the rear of the building, the Mission held services and allowed meetings with local activists and trade union leaders. As our group supplied the visitors with food, it was depressing to realise how much work the staff members would have on their hands at times when volunteers were unavailable, work that would go largely unnoticed by local authorities.

Afterwards we met with Tina, an activist who has campaigned vigorously for healthcare rights, though abortion laws in particular are the focus of her efforts. ‘There’s only one place in the state that can offer abortions now’, she tells us. ‘Most cross the state line into Virginia’. With recent Democratic victories like Doug Jones in Alabama, Phil Murphy in New Jersey, Ralph C. Northam in Virginia and especially Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person elected to the Virginia state legislature, she maintains an admirable degree of optimism. When asked about the prospects for Bernie Sanders in 2020, she replied ‘I like Bernie – I think it’s promising that he won more votes than Hillary in West Virginia, but I think we need some new blood’.

On the final day I visited the Wade Center in Bluefields, just a few miles from Pipestem. The Wade Center began as a conventional state school at which Tim formerly taught music. Eventually the school closed and the building was bought up to establish a non-profit school for disadvantaged children. The lack of employment opportunities coupled with opioid addiction leads many parents to delegate their roles as providers to day-care services like the Wade Center. Here, the children are fed in the evening and are given packed dinners to take home with them for the weekends. They also have a space to concentrate on homework given from other schools, and a safe recreational environment, although the playgrounds were mostly out of bounds. When staff members began to find syringes in the grass, they cordoned the space off. There were even bunk-beds where children could sleep for a few nights if they needed to. Nevertheless, In spite of the valuable support the Wade Center offers in every aspect of their lives, the next chapter leaves little reason for optimism for those without reliable home support to prepare them for high school.

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The Wade Center, Bluefield, West Virginia

 

West Virginia is a state forgotten by those who govern it. Governor Jim Justice’s investment in the Russian coal and steel company Mechel using state funds have led to immense debts of $4.6 million which Justice shows little indication of settling in the near future, despite the state’s dire need of reformed infrastructure. Yet discussions of rural poverty in America are overshadowed outside the state – on college campuses and among Northern state activists. The awakening of activists such as Tina have indicated a growing momentum among the formerly disengaged. But we have yet to see a similar awakening in the Northern states – of the disinterested geared into motion with progressives prepared to communicate with senators and party candidates to shape an agenda for a presidential candidate of 2020.

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Book Review: The Strip by Stefan Al

by Danielle Prostrollo

A new book to the library collection is The Strip by Stefan Al. Showcasing the history of the iconic American destination, breaking it down into eras, and delving deep into each casino and hotel’s story. There are photographs that show off each casino, increasingly taller, shinier, and extreme and Al’s writing put each of these casinos into the bigger context of Las Vegas history.

the strip

According to the Al, Las Vegas’ relationship with tourism began with a Wild West phase, resorts styled to look and feel like a frontier town before moving on to the post-War modernist. Innovations were made, such as placing a pool by the casino for leisurely lounging, only to be followed by leisurely gaming in the pool (as was the case at the Sands casino’s floating craps table). This transition was punctuated by the “Big Switch”, the multi-million dollar renovation of the Last Frontier resort into the New Frontier resort. The cowboy image was now in the rear view mirror and the space race was on.

Following this era of change the country, in a frenzy of atomic fever, leapt at the opportunity to partake in mushroom cloud-gazing. Las Vegas was in the right place for the public to make their pilgrimage for a chance to see atomic testing and the city did not waste that opportunity. Providing atomic cocktails and lunch menus, the resorts catered to their clientele. In the 1960s The Strip really started to gain height, with new casinos being built taller and taller. If there was any doubt that the frontier image of the dessert city was dead, this would certainly be it.

Building on the growth of the previous decades, the 1980s saw expansion into hyper-thematic resorts. Treasure Island, Excalibur, and the Luxor were all constructed during this “theme park”-like era. And from the extremes of giant castles and pirate ships, the strip pushed back toward the center focusing on equally enticing flights-of-fancy such as fake beaches, Venetian canals, and world landmarks. Taking the reader into present day, Al talks of the “star-chitect” trend. Recent casinos and resorts have relied on the name recognition of famous architects to bring notoriety and traffic to their destinations.

This book is a great read for anyone interested in American architecture, entertainment, or modern American history.

Find it at the Memorial Library or reserve it here

Check out some of our other recent book reviews here:

Unforgotten New York

Hope in the Dark

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Filed under American Culture, American History, American Travel, Books

Unforgotten New York

By Danielle Prostrollo

 

cover

While everyone is familiar with our biographies of Roosevelt and Lincoln, the monographs of the American Civil War, and our extensive collection of World War II literature, we have a great selection of ‘other’ books that may pique the curious mind. One of these books, which I have been enjoying this week, is Unforgotten New York.

Primarily a photography book, the authors put you on an express train through decades of New York’s infamous club culture. Each entry takes you to a new location, detailing its history and cultural importance with descriptions and photographs as well as a beautifully composed photo of the space as it exists now. Many genre-defining, iconic spaces leave no trace of their former selves – in one case, the current home of a 24-hour grocery store.

This kind of book is easy to overlook, as it looks a bit like a coffee table book to be thumbed through on the sofa of an acquaintance’s house, but this book is as engaging as any historical monograph. Paging through the cultural significance of each spot on the New York City map you begin to realise that the promoters, owners, DJs, and artists involved in each club or venue wanted to create an outlet for the like-minded public – and in so many cases, changed the face of music, art, or even broad entertainment.

You can find Unforgotten New York at the Memorial Library or wherever books are sold.

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