I first met Line just over a year ago when we were both volunteering for a cafe at a music festival in Aarhus. While I steamed milk, she prepared the espresso shots. This is how we usually introduce each other when we meet someone new.
Over our first lunch break, she told me all about her travels, from volunteer teaching at a school in China, to backpacking in Australia and Israel. I thought we were incredibly alike, but little did I know that we would end up on a road trip across the north-eastern United States together.
I always imagined my graduation summer as a softened version of Kerouac’s On the Road, with beer replacing opium and car rental instead of hitchhiking (I will try that next time to increase my hipsterness). I used to fantasise about real spontaneous travelling, motel nights and no plan to stick to. Line and I had set Chicago as our only target.
Road tripping in the US was not new to me however. In the summer of 2007, me and my family drove across Arizona, Utah, Nevada and made our way to Los Angeles, hopping from one national park to another and experiencing the most spectacular nature (Las Vegas does not qualify). A couple of years later, we drove from Maryland up to Massachusetts and Rhode Island, visiting the sandy beaches and lighthouses that inspired Hopper’s beautiful paintings.
Throughout the years, I have learnt that America is a land tailor made for such trips. Highways are large and easy to drive on (not that I did any of the driving), lodging is available almost everywhere and food chains fight for their spot in the thousands of gas stations. We joked on how we “ran on Dunkin’” (coffee-chain Dunkin Donut’s slogan is “America Runs on Dunkin” and their iced coffee was a regular treat multiple times a day) and having gross, fatty yet delicious meals at typical Diners suddenly became routine.
After our initial three days in Toronto, spent wondering around town and slowly getting used to the six hour jet lag, we set off for the 800 km drive to New York City. That first day was a test to understand our limits on the road. Line was the driver and I was what she described as “a combination of GPS, DJ and entertainer”. We realised straight away that we were a good road trip match and throughout the week we never drove less than 700 km per journey. We ended up crossing 7 states in 8 days.
Going back to New York City is a reminder that no matter how many times you visit a place, every trip will be different.
It is a city that brings back an incredible amount of memories, like the time I dragged my parents to 1 Park Avenue to deliver a huge candy stick to the condo’s concierge as a gift for Jerry (yes, the mouse, Tom’s frenemy) or waking up to massive, magical snowfalls that I could only dream of in Rome. Still today, 15 or so years later, when Jerry is just a fictional character and snowfalls are no longer as magical, I keep collecting memories in NYC that go way beyond Times Square and yellow cabs.
Line and I met up with a few people in New York. My friend Maddy’s boyfriend who plays the lead role in a must-see Broadway show, and my Swedish friend Jacob who coincidentally happened to be there the same days. Ben suggested we’d join the lower east side ‘movida’ that night, so we did. I still have fuzzy memories of that evening, from crashing a private birthday party to falling asleep on the cab back home, but clear memories of what it felt to walk the High Line (and 20 km in total across the city) the day after.
We got pleasantly used to the striking friendliness of the people of North America in no time. After spending the last 4 years of my life in London and Scandinavia, random strangers engaging in small, yet somehow significant talk are definitely not a daily encounter. If you happen to hit someone by mistake on a crammed London underground carriage your “sorry” will most likely be answered by a vague nod (if you’re lucky), in America you’d probably get a cheerful “no problem, darling, it’s ok!”.
After a few days in New York, we set off towards Chicago, and stopped for a night in the small coastal town of Eire in upstate Pennsylvania. The more you distance yourself from big cities in America, the wider people get (no jokes). That one time we stopped for dinner somewhere in New York State, we could count the number of regular-sized people on one hand. Sadly enough, that is a reality, just like casually walking into the gun department in Walmart when you are actually just looking for blueberry bagels.
We also realised that the in-state, on the road part of the journey was what gave us a clearer insight of what American society is like. One evening, 200 km away from Chicago, we stopped for dinner at a little diner in Indiana. We ended up having a long conversation with the owner Angelo, a greek immigrant, about media bias, Hillary Clinton’s corruptness, Trump’s craziness and Bernie Sander’s greatness. When me and Line left, the restaurant was closing and I overheard Angelo whispering to one of his employees to “lock all guns safely”. Yes, him and all waiters in his restaurant were carrying guns. For him it was normal, a “sign of protection” as he told us.
That night, we were not reassured when hearing that the city of Chicago saw over 2,500 people shot (not necessarily killed) since January 2016 alone. We were aware of gun violence being a problem, but not to that extent. The city itself is vibrant and fun. Just a few weeks before, I interviewed for the paper I am working for in Copenhagen two members from the indie-band Whitney, both native Chicagoans. They mentioned how the city has one of America’s best music scenes at the moment; no wonder their country-soul, gooey tunes made up a large chunk of our car playlist (in between my pop and Line’s rap).
During the last few days, when driving through Michigan on our way back to Canada, we stopped in ghost Detroit, a failed city abandoned by thousands. We visited streets where up to 80% of homes were empty, where growing tree branches cracked window glasses and dusty American flags still hung on porches. Not really a sign of the country’s greatness in that context after all. I couldn’t help but thinking about the huge social contrasts inherent to the American society and how politicians keep convincing their voters they live in the best country on earth. While no place is perfect, the US needs serious improvements (and by saying that, I’m not paraphrasing Trump’s slogan).
By the end of it, I realised how this trip taught me once more what travelling really is about.
I often re-read an essay written by philosopher Alain De Botton, author of “The Art of Travel”. He defines what “generation curious” is about, how travelling today is more than visiting a museum or knowing the year a cathedral was built in. Simple, we do not need to travel to know that, Google does the job.
“One would learn more about the culture and particularities of the Netherlands from a lunch with five Dutch chemists in Amsterdam than from any number of days at the Rijksmuseum.” he writes.
He emphasises how travelling is all about learning from cultures which are ‘exotic’ to us, which no internet website will ever be able to do. Talking with locals gives us precious access to a real understanding of the reality we are travelling in, something a canvas hung on a wall won’t give you.
Mostly, I believe travelling has the huge potential to uncover more about what we know about ourselves, our needs and limits. Maybe one could see it as a quest to finding their own self. Because eventually by travelling we end up discovering what ‘exotic’ means for each one of us, whether it is eating herring in Lapland, mango on a beach or pizza in a square. It makes us understand what we really want out of our life, something no book, no movie and no person will ever be able to tell us.