A1Ireland, Hungary, and the USA are three countries where I feel local, places I’ve lived for long periods. I still feel Irish and don’t lay claim to being either American or Hungarian but I am fascinated by what people miss when they’re abroad. Ask any American in Europe what they
miss about home and, odds on, their list will include Reese’s peanut butter cups and Butterfingers. I don’t see the attraction myself. I’m not a fan of peanuts, or of American chocolate. Ask any Irish person living abroad the same question and I’m sure Tayto crisps and Cadbury’s chocolate would feature alongside rashers, sausages, and black pudding.

But what of Hungarians?

I stood behind a woman in the check-in queue at Budapest airport recently. We were heading to Dublin. With only one check-in desk open the queue was glacier-like. The chap behind the desk was doing his job. Any bags over the allowed limit were turned away, their owners slinking to the side, cursing, wondering for the millionth time whether it was really worth flying budget airlines. As they stepped aside and opened their bags in a frantic attempt to remove the offending kilo or three, the guilty among us got antsy. Would we weigh in under the limit?

My woman thought not. She opened her suitcase and transferred heavy stuff to her carry-on. I had a peek. The contents suggested that she was going to visit someone Hungarian, someone who was missing the creature comforts of home. She had paprikas. She had kolbasz. She had pickled cabbage, pickled cucumbers, and pickled beets. She had enough food keep a family of four sated for a week. Her entire suitcase was food. Nothing but food, except for the homemade palinka.

A2I’m Stateside this week and doing my bit for the import/export business between America and Hungary. I brought over paprika powder, marzipan, and lots of chocolate. I brought books by Hungarian authors Magda Szabo, Antal Szerb, and Móricz Zsigmond that have been translated into English. I brought bottles of palinka and Tokaj. I brought things that have come to epitomise Hungary…for me. I wanted to give my American friends a taste of the Hungary I know.  And I’ll be bringing back the Reese’s peanut butter cups and the Butterfingers for American friends in Budapest.

It has surprised me though, that when I make comparisons, I make them with Hungary first and Ireland second. Perhaps it’s because Ireland is a country familiar to many in this part of the world, one that doesn’t need locating. Hungary is more exotic, not as well known. Out shopping today, some random stranger asked me where I’d bought the dress I was wearing. I could have explained that it was made by a Hungarian designer who has a small boutique on Ferenciek tere but I said simply that I’d bought it in Budapest, forgetting for a minute that not everyone in the world knows where Budapest is. She looked confused. Budapest, Hungary, I said, with a question mark in my voice. Where’s that, she asked. Europe, I said, waiting for the penny to drop. It didn’t. I smiled and walked away before I was asked to locate Europe on her mental map of the world. What would I have said? It’s beside Russia?

What I’ve missed most about living in America is the hospitality of its people and the stratospheric levels of customer service, comparatively speaking. I’ve missed the quirkiness and the belief that nothing is too weird to try once. I’ve missed the variety of food and culture, a product of the diversity of its people. And I’ve missed the grocery stores – those wide-aisled havens of choice in which I can lose myself for hours. It’s good to be back.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 March 2015

When I think of Cambridge, I think of earnest young brains who are preparing themselves to lead the world in their various fields and fancies. I think of high-tech, bespectacled minds whose brain power is the stuff movies are made about. I think of rowers, racquetballers, and rugby players: fit, muscly types who have broken the three-minute mile a hundred times over. The last thing I think about is Harry Potter and quidditch.

Enjoying the unseasonable warmth of a 22-degree October Saturday in Cambridge a few weeks back, I was still fixating on my visit to Harvard and bemused by the fact that Cambridge is not in Boston – it is a separate city on the other side of the Charles River. With our bank-side view of the Head of the Charles Regatta, we were wandering up towards the starting line to see just how many boats were in the water when we came across a large group of 20-somethings engaged in what looked vaguely like it could be a team sport.

Quidditch in Boston

About half a dozen teams were taking part, judging by the different jerseys, and they all seemed to be taking their sport very seriously indeed. There were three hoops, one large one, offset by a smaller one on either side. There were a number balls that looked a little heavier than your average soccer ball. And everyone on the pitch had a stick between their legs – like, well, like a broomstick, without the brushy part.

Yep – they were playing quidditch. Does JK Rowling realise what she’s done? Her fictional sport has been lifted from the pages of her Harry Potter books and brought to life. More than 300 mixed-gender teams in over 20 countries around the world play this Contact sport – and that’s Contact with a capital C. They had a world championship earlier this year, in Canada, with seven countries competing. The USA took the gold; Australia, the silver, and Canada, the bronze. Mexico, Belgium, the UK, and France have to wait till next time to feature.

And Quidditch has rules!

A unique mix of elements from rugby, dodgeball, and tag, teams of seven  play with brooms between their legs at all times. Each team can have a maximum of four players who identify with the same gender, excluding the seeker. Note the word ‘gender’. This is important. It is not necessarily the same as ‘sex’.

Three chasers score goals worth 10 points each with a volleyball called the quaffle. They advance the ball down the field by running with it, passing it to teammates, or kicking it. Each team has a keeper who defends the goal hoops. Two beaters use dodgeballs called bludgers to disrupt the flow of the game by “knocking out” other players. Any player hit by a bludger is out of play until they touch their own goals. Each team also has a seeker who tries to catch the snitch. The snitch is a ball attached to the waistband of the snitch runner, a neutral athlete in a yellow uniform who uses any means to avoid capture. The snitch is worth 30 points and its capture ends the game. If the score is tied after the snitch catch, the game proceeds into overtime.

One hundred metres up the river, my jaw was still hanging open as I wondered, not for the first time, at the rather sheltered life I lead. Every day, it would seem, unearths something even weirder than what went before it. Quidditch anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

People wonder why so many smart people come out of Harvard. It’s not rocket science, says Edward de Bono, it’s because so many smart people go in! Duh. I have a thing for old and famous universities, one I’d perhaps never admit to in public. I’m strangely cowed by alpha-intellect and have been known to sit quietly over lunch with PhD’d acquaintances, too uncertain to open my mouth and contribute anything to the conversation, all the while wishing silently that they might start to talk about something normal, like the state of democracy in Hungary or Coronation Street. I don’t know why this is. I’m far from stupid and yet when I hear the words ‘he went to Yale’ or ‘she went to Harvard’, I seem to lose the power of speech or anything that approaches intelligent conversation.

Harvard MAHarvard, MA

I’d been to Harvard before – many years ago  – when I was in Cambridge for some meeting or other and I was duly impressed. I went again a few weeks ago and decided that I could spend an entire day, all 24 hours of it, in the Harvard bookstore. I was in heaven. I had forgotten that the campus is accessed by a number of gates, each one bearing the load of someone else’s wisdom. We found the gate that said: ENTER NOW TO GROW IN WISDOM.  We did and I, for one, am none the wiser – perhaps you have to enter repeatedly, unlike Johnston Gate which is closed most of the year. And for good reason – the Crimsons are a superstitious lot apparently because they believe that students should only pass through it twice – when they first arrive as Freshmen and when they graduate. Any other time and it’s bad luck. If it were down to being superstitious, I’d definitely be accepted.

Harvard MA

And then there are the lectures and the talks, each designed to make you think. Had I the money to do it all without the weighty responsibility of student loans, I might consider it, presupposing of course that they’d have me anyway. But something has been lost in the years since I was first there. The romantic notions I have of shaping the world over a few beers in a smokey student bar, when idealism  hasn’t yet turn to cynicism and hope is still winning its eternal fight with reality, are gone. Today, Harvard is a tobacco-free zone. Now, I’m not for a minute saying that all intelligent people smoke cigarettes or whacky baccy – but there is a certain O’Toolish charm about the gangly, corduroyed, loafered collegiate that I find particularly endearing (and yes, I know I’m nouning (?) that adjective; I mentioned that I wasn’t stupid, didn’t I 🙂 ).

Harvard inscription

When the great fathers decided that they could no longer leave the country’s future in the hands of the churches and founded the University back in the 1600s, I wonder if they could have envisaged the PRIMAL SCREAM that would be a mainstay of student life in the twenty-first century.

At the end of every semester, as the clock strikes midnight on the first day of finals, Harvard students strip down to their birthday suits and run laps around Harvard Yard, screaming as loud as they can to relieve that pre-exam tension.

The mind boggles. But hey, whatever floats your boat.

Boston Head of the Charles regatta

And speaking of boats, our weekend in Boston coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Head of the Charles Regatta. The world’s largest annual two-day regatta, it attracts about 11 000 competitors and 400 000 spectators. It was impressive to see the seniors in action – amazingly fit people who were within an oar’s ripple of inspiring me to do more exercise. I’ve always quite fancied rowing and once tried it in the gym. Mind you, the only way I could keep the rhythm was to incant the Hare Krishna chant and then pull in time. I wonder how that would look on my application form…

Harvard rowers on the CharlesHarvard rowing on the Charles

I’ve been to Boston a few times but I must have spent most of that time hanging out in pubs, as I have little recollection of doing anything touristy. One of my oldest mates, one of those who know me inside and out, and accept me and my myriad foibles and still love me anyway, has lived there for years and it’s where I gravitate to when I’m in need of a massive hug – he’s a massive guy.

Perhaps because I had the lovely GZs  with me, he felt the need to point out the touristy things we could do – and so we took ourselves off to the Boston Tea Party living history museum. I love amateur dramatics. I love a bit of acting. And when that acting is combined with historical fact, I’m in heaven.

Boston Tea Party guide

We got the full story in just under two hours and, had we so desired, we could have thrown some tea into the harbour. My history is nearly as bad as my geography so I learned a lot – and felt the stirring of what could only be called pride in the sisters when I heard of the part women played in the shenanigans.

Typically the ones who decided what was bought for the house and from whom, the women of the day made their presence felt through their purse strings. Impressive. It was the birth of the ‘no taxation without representation’ movement and its legacy is still felt today. The mystery that has surrounded Paul Revere and his midnight ride was unveiled and for a while I was back in the 1700s, living it all.

State House, Boston, MA USAState house, Boston, MA, hooker entrance

We were staying in the North End (where Mr Revere was born), where the price of a one-bedroom flat brought me out in a cold sweat. To have to pay $3000  a month in rent, what would I have to earn? We took a drive up Beacon Hill and saw the secret service agents outside John Carey’s house. The golden dome of the State Capitol was curious but not nearly as curious as the sign on the gate for the general hooker entrance. This made the case for my min-cap theory (use as few initial caps as possible) – had it read General Hooker entrance, I might have cottoned on to the fact that General Hooker was a person and not a classification of ladies of the night. And Joseph Hooker was indeed a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

The queues at the local Starbucks on Sunday were out the door – $50, $60 spent on coffees and croissants. Not a bad life, if you can afford it. And yes, I ignored my self-imposed boycott of the chain because I so desperately wanted a decent cup of coffee. Who’d have though such a thing was so hard to find in North America?

Boston skyline at nightBoston skyline by dayBoston archways

The Boston skyline is compact. The financial district is walkable, as is the city itself. The Big Dig, so prominent the last few times I’ve been there, had finally been dug and the parks that came in its wake are beautiful. The city is made for walking. The harbour is lovely with its restaurants peopled with style icons that for me are so American. It was like being in a sitcom. I’ve slept in beds that are older than the city and yet had to admire how it preserves its youthful age and simply builds around it.

We passed St Stephen’s, the last remaining church in Boston built by Charles Bulfinch. I’ve made a note that I need to go back when it’s open. We passed underneath the archway of the Boston Harbour Hotel and wondered fleetingly how much damage a night there would do to our wallets. I would love, just for a week, to have so much money that such things didn’t bother me. I would love, just for a week, to see what life might be like for those who call it their home. And yes, people do live in that hotel. Amazing.

I had forgotten how much I like the city, and yet I wonder how much of my liking of it has to do with the fact that it’s where MR calls home. Were I to live in America again, I could think of worse places to live. Mind you, I’d only be able to afford a shoebox.

 

There was a stage in my life when I would drive the length and breadth of Ireland to see a fortune teller. I was fascinated, obsessed even, with the future and what it held. Not known for my patience, I wanted to know today what I could expect tomorrow. I went to markets, caravans sites, suburban houses – and sat in line with scores of others curious to know what life had in store.

The same when I lived in the States. I remember once, in San Diego, going to see a fortune teller with two friends. We drew lots to see who’d go in first. I was in the middle. Both the others had readings they were happy with – but me? She refused to read me at all. In South Carolina, I saw a chap who predicted three outlandish things. I remember walking away chastising myself for wasting my money, resolving to give it all up. And then each of the three things came true. Can I remember his name or what city I was in? Nope!

Salem MA

I’d been looking forward to visiting Salem, MA. Of all the places we’d planned (or not planned) to visit on this trip, this was the one I most wanted to see. I’d been there years ago and wanted to revisit. It was here, in 1692, that about 150 people were accused of witchcraft and 19 were convicted and hanged for their sins. It was here that Mary Bradbury, on trial for witchery, uttered the words ‘wholly innocent’ a term still used today. The Salem Witch Trials are still frightening to read about – especially knowing that the essence of human nature has remained unchanged, and such things could likely happen again, if there was enough momentum and mass delusion.

Tarot reading in Salem MA

But I also wanted to have my fortune told. It’s been a while, you see, since I’ve been read – I think the last time money changed hands was in Tatabanya, here in Hungary,  some years ago when a gypsy woman told me I needed to get out of the convent  and start to be more feminine. Mind you, she was speaking in Hungarian and I was relying on a male friend of mine to translate. I have no doubts at all about his fluency in Hungarian; it was the missing female nuances that concerned me.

But it was pouring with rain that day in Salem. Torrential. We had made the mistake of heading to Salem NH and in the traffic that had ground to a crawl with the poor visibility, time wasn’t on our side. So by the time we got to Salem, MA, instead of having the afternoon, we had about 45 minutes. And did I mention it was pouring?

Salem, MA

I found the witches and wizards school (I kid you not) and found the famous FT that the likes of Charlie Sheen and such rely on, but she wasn’t there that day. The rates had gone up, too – $90 for 30 minutes. Was I really that interested?

It’s hard being a Catholic who cannot number patience among her (many?) virtues. Do I believe in a divine plan? In the gift of unanswered prayers? In the certainty that what is for me won’t pass me? Of course I do – without reserve. It’s just that I want it all to happen today or at least, to know by when I should expect it, so that I can decide what I want to do while I’m waiting.

Two weeks later though, I’m grateful that I didn’t get a reading. There’s lots of stuff up in the air right now, a lot of balls floating around taking their sweet time to land. And had I been told they might land in a certain way, I might be even more unbearable to live with (tolerance levels are at an all-time low as I’m punch-drunk with tiredness). There’s knowing and there’s knowing. And with knowing comes the need for decisions and decisiveness isn’t my forte, especially  if I’m given any time at all to think. Am best with empty-handed leaps of faith than planned, orchestrated design – so why then the fascination with fortune tellers? I tell you – at times I confuse myself.

Another friend of mine died last week. Unexpectedly. And with every one who passes, I’m reminded even more forcefully that time is of the essence – we never know the day or the hour and we shouldn’t waste what time we have. But then I remember that I can’t make the grass grow any quicker by pulling on it. The divine plan will unfold at its own pace – and while I might be chomping at the bit, I need to take a deep breath and hold fast to the faith.

Mind you, I couldn’t resist buying a spell-infused candle… which lands me front and centre of the pick-and-mix Catholic brigade. Ah, the confusion of it all. But still, I’m grateful that I can at times even amuse myself with my figaries.

 

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I’ve never quite known what to make of New Hampshire’s state motto but have concluded, on my own, without asking anyone, not even Google, that it has something to do with the fact that the state doesn’t have any sales tax – the live free thing has to be tax related. It’s an improvement on that I thought the first time I was there many years ago. Then I was sure it referred to guns and radicals and anti-everythings. It was, after all, the first state to declare its independence six months before the Declaration was signed. [Turns out my initial opinion is closer to the mark.] I was ambivalent about going back but I am glad I did.

It was here that the first potato ever was planted in the USA, back in 1719. It’s also home to the first free public library in the country. And it was in New Hampshire the first legal lottery was adopted in the 1960s. In 1828, it saw the first American women’s strike in the country. And perhaps, most endearingly, it’s the birthplace of Sarah Josepha Hale, she who penned ‘Mary had a little lamb’ (which, incidentally, was what Bono wrote on a scrap of paper back in 1983 when he gave me his autograph in the TV Club in Harcourt St., in Dublin; that I hadn’t a clue who he was is neither here nor there).

New Hampshire in the Fall

Having woefully overestimated the size of New England, we decided to stay two consecutive nights in the suspiciously named Swiss Chalets. It is owned and operated by a native of Mumbai who had arrived in the States 23 years ago and, via Texas, had made it to the back end of North Conway – the embodiment of the American dream. And it worked.

White Mountain National Forest Maine

Our plan was to spend a day driving through White Mountain National Forest and its 48 mountains which are at least 4000 feet high – the tallest being Mount Washington. It was here that New England in the Fall demystified itself and after the somewhat wishy-washy experience that was Maine, it felt like we were driving through God’s own country. Having failed spectacularly, through no fault of our own, to sit in a room where political history had been made, we decided to try once more.  This time, we were headed for Dixville Notch, where, on the eve of each US election, 100% of the town’s electorate gathers in the Balsams (a hotel) to cast their vote. We drove for hours to have  coffee in this ballroom and when we got there, it was closed for renovation – by a business man from Maine. And not just the room – but the entire hotel.

Dixville Notch New HampshireDixville New HampshireMarian Shrine New Hampshire

Undaunted, we continued on our way, heading towards the Vermont border where the map promised a Marian Shrine. And I was in need of some prayer and devotion to lighten my soul. But would you believe, it too was closed. For good. We could still visit but the Oblate Fathers are no longer maintaining it and the hundreds of bikers who used to come here every June to have their bikes blessed will have to look for another venue.

The Canterbury Shaker Village was open though – but on a day, the only day, where we had torrential rain. And not even my innate curiosity could make me brave the floods and risk having to drive while drenched. I had met the Shakers before while in Kentucky last year with the late, great RB. And though they’re dying out, too, with very few remaining, their skill with wood is still something to behold.

It was North Conway though that got my vote. If circumstance dictated that I had to live in New Hampshire, that’s where I’d choose. A mountain resort town with good restaurants, a thriving antique trade, not one but two theatres, and an interesting looking main street. It has quite an arty feel to it and is busy enough to satisfy my temporary need for people and yet remote enough for me to be on my own. Perfect.

 

 

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Em…. how many states make up New England again? Maine? And? I can’t believe I had to ask that question. I suppose I didn’t HAVE to ask it. Knowing the answer didn’t immeasurably change my life in any deep and meaningful way, but there’s a curious streak in me that has to know the facts, even if I rarely retain them. For a few minutes, or hours, or sometimes even a day, I feel as if I’m in the know.

Bumper stickers Maine

Maine is definitely in New England. That much I knew. Driving across the Canadian border was quite the experience and this was even before the current low in US/Hungarian relations. The immigration guys weren’t interested in me – even though I’d handed them the wrong passport and there was no evidence of my ever having entered Canada on the one I showed them, but they didn’t seem at all concerned. They were more bothered with visa waivers. It could have been worse. Six dollars and 30 minutes, we were on our way.

Maine

I’d wanted to go on this trip to see New England in the fall, something that’s been on my bucket list forever. But I think I picked up an acute case of Stendhal syndrome in Cape Breton. There’s only so much beauty I can marvel at without lapsing into a sort of vague acceptance of it all. I swear I lost millimeters from my chin given the number of times my jaw dropped open in awe, but by the time we got to Maine, I was as full as I’d ever be with leaves.

Bar Harbor

We overnighted outside Bangor in a place called Brewer and the next day headed off to see Bar Harbor. Back in its day, it was the holiday choice of gentry and today, it’s still pretty, in a twee’ish sort of way. TripAdvisor says there are 102 things to do there… alongside the 102 000 other people visiting for the day, most of whom were either shopping or sitting. Soon after, though, we discovered one of Maine’s delights – the names it has chosen for its towns. Having failed spectacularly to find Belfast on PEI, we just had to detour to see what Maine had to offer in its version. A lovely spot, notable for its marked absence of pubs. But it did have its own brewing company and a very impressive two-storey bridge.

Belfast MaineBelfast Maine bridgeMexico, Maine

On the road again, we passed through towns with all sorts of associations. We’d been through Mexico before we realised it and the anticipated shot of tequila never came to pass. Massive wooden houses set off against a backdrop of mountain ridges and fall foliage did their best to blend in and not for the first time I found myself wondering what everyone does for a living in this part of the world. The few people we did see seemed to spend their time watching the world go by from the vantage point of their front porch. I think we might have been the first foreigners ever to stop at the River Valley diner – but it made my day to see a typically southern chicken-fried steak on the menu so I didn’t mind the looks. I think that if I lived in the state long enough, I’d become paranoid.

Kennebunkport Cabot Cove Jessica Fletcher

We made it as far as Kennebunkport (only 35 things to do!), too, not to pay tribute to George W., but to find some reference to Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote fame. Jessica lives in a fictitious town of Cabot Cove which, we thought, was in Kennebunkport. And it sort of is… [there are many theories as to where it might be] but no one in the town realises it. Not usually shy about cashing in on tenuous links to international TV, this was more than surprising. But perhaps, with George W. paraphernalia on sale, the down doesn’t have room for another hero. But it was the price of seafood that nearly brought on the heart-attack. Outrageous.

Fall colours Maine

I struggled for a day or so to figure out why I wasn’t getting that nice, homely feeling I normally have in the US of A. I’d been to Maine before, briefly, to shop, and perhaps I’d been too concerned with testing the limits of my credit card to pay much attention to how I felt about the state, but I simply wasn’t doing it for me. And then I realised … there was very little red. No maple trees. Lots of yellows and greens but none of the richness I’d grown used to over the past week and that had somehow upset my kilter.

That said, our best hotel of the trip, the Senator Inn in Augusta [the state capitol, settled by the English in 1607], also had a great little restaurant and a fantastic bathroom. Getting excited about the size of a bathroom is a sure sign that I’ve been on the road too long. Changing hotel rooms every night can take its toll. And as I said, there’s only so many leaves a gal can swoon over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve often wondered how Las Vegas came to be Las Vegas. What attracted all those casino magnates to the city? What prompted the glitz and the glamour?Vegas was born in the early 1900s, and in 1911, Nevada was the place to go for a quickie divorce. If you lived there for six weeks, you were eligible for one. These short-term, divorce-seeking, residents holed up at dude ranches, forerunners to the Strip’s hotels.  Who’d have thought?

In 1931, construction on the Hoover Dam brought an influx of workers and a boom to the local economy. And with all that money floating around, it was time to legalise gambling. The first few motels/casinos that opened had a distinctive western theme, like the El Rancho on Highway 91 which opened in 1941. This was followed by the El Cortez Hotel –  the first casino in downtown Las Vegas, and in 1942, the Last Frontier.

The glitz and the glamour didn’t arrive until St Stephen’s Day in 1946 – the day after Christmas, when Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo opened. Supposedly named after his girlfriend Virginia Hill (she had long legs that reminded him of a flamingo), the hotel was a flop; it closed for three months to regroup and reopened in March 1947. I’d love to know what they learned in that time. Whatever it was, it worked. The hotel turned a profit in its first month and is still going today.

But all this was happening in the desert – and it wasn’t until Siegel was murdered that the press came to see what was going on in the sand. Liberace made his debut there in 1944, Frank Sinatra arrived in 1951, and the rest, as they say, is history.

IMG_6451 (800x600)I first visited Vegas back in 1991 – and then I was enthralled. It was smaller then, more manageable. Action concentrated on the strip – the old strip. You had your plastic bucket to collect your quarters from the slots. You could spend a dollar or two on the roulette tables, or eke out your rent money playing blackjack. A breakfast of steak and eggs might set you back a fin. Waitresses were plentiful and the drinks, although watered down, kept coming. People dressed up to gamble.

IMG_6457 (800x600)Fast forward twenty-two years and the scene is a lot different. No more coins from the slots – now you get an electronic receipt you can cash in. Minimum bets are $5, show tickets start at $200, and a poolside chair will set you back $30. And yet the place is heaving. Air-conditioned walkways link the hotels so there is no need to walk the streets. Hundreds of young women in Vegas for hen parties queue up to see the Australian Chippendales. Hundreds more married women in their 40s and 50s escaping the humdrum of domesticity for a weekend, put on their glad rags and take to the town. Loud jocks and golf-shirted weekday dads walk around with jugs of beer – looking cool. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

IMG_6465 (800x600) (800x598)At night, it all looks great. But in the sober light of day, you see that the marble isn’t marble. The brick isn’t brick. The statues aren’t granite. It’s all fake, a front; there’s nothing real about it. I love to gamble and previous trips to Vegas and Tahoe and Biloxi saw many a happy hour at the tables. But this time around, something had changed. Just as I no longer felt the need to have my cards read in Madrid, my half-hearted attempt at the slots soon gave way to lethargy. I simply wasn’t interested.

IMG_6483 (800x594)This week, as temperatures in Budapest tip 40, I’m writing the last of a series of posts on my US road-trip. It was an amazing few weeks. I caught up with old friends and made new ones. I revisited places I’d been to before and discovered others I’d never heard of. With plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of life as we ate up mile after mile of asphalt, the trip gave me time to think. To evaluate. To see how I’ve changed. To remember what matters. For this I’m truly thankful.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Why, I asked. Why would you want to see the Grand Canyon – it’s just a massive hole in the ground. That said, I did take that detour to see meteor crater, so that in itself makes me a bit of a hypocrite. And I hadn’t been to the Grand Canyon since the early 1990s and back then, when I looked over the edge it was impressive, yes. But I’ve been more impressed by smaller stuff. Read more

I can’t get a handle on GPS. Being a moving blue dot on a screen just doesn’t do it for me. That annoying turn left, turn right, go straight is enough to drive me to distraction. So we navigated our way across the Mojave desert using a hand-drawn map that spanned 200 miles. There were times I wondered if we’d taken a wrong turn but there had been no wrong turns to take. For miles and miles, all we could see was road, and desert.

IMG_6252 (800x591)IMG_6246 (800x577) (800x577)Lines of lonely mailboxes were clear indicators of the inhabitants and the houses that blended in so perfectly with their surrounds that they were invisible. We drove and drove and nothing much changed. And then we happened across Kelso Depot. Marked with an X on our map, it was somewhere to stop, to break the monotony.

Once a boomtown, Kelso is now home to a renovated train station that houses a museum and a café – a café run by a chap called Mike who wants to sell out and retire, yet again. The 2013 version of this town is a far cry from the 1943 version when troops, tanks, and trucks were shipped through here by rail, creating a hive of activity that begot buildings, people, and commerce. All was well until 1985, when Union Pacific pulled out and the trains stopped pulling in.

IMG_6274 (800x600) (800x600)The old jail – a two-cell steel contraption – was used to house those who caused a ruckus after a few beers on a Friday night. Open to the elements, no one spent more than a night here – anything more would have been close to torture. The town was called after a railroad worker who won a competition to have it named after him. Its main claim to fame in the 1970s was that it was a town without television. Now its main claim to fame is that it breaks the journey across the desert and offers root-beer floats to thirsty travellers.

IMG_6278 (800x600) (800x600)I’d forgotten what root beer tasted like. But the concept of a root beer float (vanilla ice-cream floating in a glass of soda) was too all-American to pass up. And the decor, with its bar counter and  high stools, looked as if it had come off a TV set for a 1960s American sitcom. So we tried them. And didn’t like them. But struggled through. If you’re wondering what root beer tastes like, it’s remarkably similar to that horrible eucalyptus toothpaste – the pink stuff.  Bless him though, Mike didn’t want to take our money. But traffic was light that day so we compromised and paid just $5 for the experience.

IMG_6276 (591x800)America isn’t just big cities, skyscrapers, and football stadiums. At its backbone are people like Mike, ordinary people, trying to eke a living from the cards they’ve been dealt. America is more attitude than atmosphere. That instant familiarity can take a little getting used to but then you stop for sustenance in the boonies and spend a pleasant half hour talking about nothing with someone you know you’ll never see again. And that someone, that stranger, does something nice – like buy you a root-beer float – then you get it. However superficial it might seem, America has an abiding interest in other people’s business, a curiosity about the world outside, and a opinion on just about everything. And when you strip away the commercialism, the bright lights, the designer labels, and stumble across places like the Beanery, and see small-town America for what it is, the kindness comes out.