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Jesus & the American Flag

April 23, 2010

I haven’t posted anything since Washington so I’ll just give a brief run-down of what I’ve been doing for the past week and a half. Since D.C. I have carved my way down the east coast briefly stopping at Baltimore (MD), Philadelphia (PA), Richmond (VA), before settling down to scribble this at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Then tomorrow I have an 8 hour Greyhound journey leaving at 6.55am for Asheville in North Carolina. Greyhound bus has been my main mode of transport for the trip having purchased a Greyhound Discovery Pass which gives me unlimited travel for 2 months for only $500 (around 250 quid). The buses are a real nut-magnet but if you want a more colourful journey around this country it is definitely the way to travel. On my last journey from Richmond to Charlottesville a very loud and very public fight kicked off between two women over one “sucking her teeth” at the other. But this fracas was just background noise compared to the crazy old-timer who sat next to me singing Gospel anthems & mumbling about how he was on his way to “Greeneville, Greeneville Mississippi”.

At my two first stops, Baltimore & Philly, I couldn’t have had two more vastly differing experiences. With a homicide rate nearly six times that of New York City, Baltimore does not have the picturesque vistas of Asheville or the monumental architecture of Washington D.C. Home of the Ravens & Orioles, the birthplace of Babe Ruth (The Sultan of Swat), and the final resting place of Edgar Allen Poe; Baltimore is a city known only previously to me through episodes of The Wire. I had a fairly intimate experience with one of the Baltimore housing projects when I wandered off to look for Poe’s old childhood home through one of the more ‘sketchy’ neighborhoods. Munching away on a Baltimore Crab Cake I aimlessly bumbled away from the shiny harbour renovations (the safe zone) into the celebrated ‘murderland’ (or at least it’s little cousin) where, although I didn’t get to meet Stringer Belle, I did get a snapshot of the vast disparity between rich and poor in the city.

So after a day viewing the sights of Birdland I returned in the evening to my hosts: a Jesuit Volunteer Community. Amanda (my contact) and 5 others are all 20 something year olds who live in this ramshackle row-house which has been passed down to them by community after community of previous JV’s. They are an inspiring bunch who work in various non-profit organisations in the city and despite the religious title of the programme are not the in-your-face evangelical movement that I unfairly assumed they’d be. Not wishing to end up seeming a total suck-butt and forego any opportunity to gently mock some of my hosts I hope they’ll forgive me for trying to be honest about my experience. I did come in contact with my first communal prayer at dinner while with the JV’s…a tradition that has increased the further I travel below the Mason-Dixon line. The reason why grace at dinner has been such an event for me so far is that I always become the subject of these prayers: the standard format being a thank-you to God for my safe arrival and my presence in their home. Sometimes we hold hands…sometimes we don’t. Coming from a land of tv dinners & religious cynicism these prayers are a fairly alien concept to one of the godless and I always end up in a prolonged battle with my tell-tale face worried that I may give off an accidental gurn of amusement or awkwardness. In fact I have now become quite fond of grace at dinner and can sustain a mask of unabashed piety throughout.

From Baltimore to Philadelphia. Spring Fling Baby! Philly was one big frat party. Beer Pong, the Keg Toss (illustrated beautifully above), endless imitations of my accent by beautiful students, night trips to Atlantic City (the Vegas of the East), Kegs & Eggs at 10.00am, power hour, fraternity pledges, uncooked meat. One of the most amusing people I met out there was this guy Mike who called me foreigner and had the most incredible tattoo I’ve ever seen: an upper-arm tattoo of Jesus’ face on the American Flag. He claimed that he got it because it gained him free drinks back home whenever he flashed it, but the volume of times he insisted we toast to those two great American institutions suggested otherwise. I don’t feel guilty in saying I didn’t see anything of Philly the city while I was there as I spent most of my time dotting between keg parties.

Anyway I’m aware that this is exploding into epic proportions and so I will cut this post short here and come back to you about Richmond, Charlottesville & Asheville at some other time. I hardly have touched on the Keg-side stories of Philly but a whole host of drinking anecdotes doesn’t really inspire my parents about the nature of this trip. Until next time.

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