The baggage of preconceptions and of prejudices that we’ve accumulated over the years is, in the vast majority of occasions, completely wrong: someone we assumed to be a twat will turn out to be a smart fellow, a dish we disliked will reveal itself to be delicious and so on and so forth. Nowhere this is truer than when thinking about other countries, and about people from other countries. As a person who has the luck of enjoying frequent travelling, I should know this better; however, it seems that I’m a particularly slow learner, as this post will explain.
Over in Europe, dismissing Americans for simpletons has now become a common habit. I grew up picturing Buzz Aldrin, Michael Jordan and Bill Gates as the archetypal American man; with time, however, the image blurred to the point that I began to consider George W. Bush, rednecks and Wayne LaPierre as the mould used to fashion the average US Joe. In my mind – and in the ones of many of my friends and acquaintances in the UK – America is made of a tiny corner where sanity still held out, New England, a West Coast made either of grunge adept or of sun-shrivelled Angeleños and a no-mans’-land stretching between the two, which could be printed white on maps with the moniker “Here be dragons – or, rather, people with firearms ready to shoot at you for not speaking the lingo”.
Filled with prejudice, it was therefore with palpable worry that I had approached the immigration post in Charlotte, North Carolina. Borders always make me nervous, and the American one is always one I dread; firstly, because I carry enough Middle Eastern stamps to pass for a khat drug mule; secondly, because… well, argue as you might, but extraordinary renditions and Guantanamo Bay have casted quite a cloud over the slogan “Land of the free”, at least for me. And, mind you, this was North Carolina, not you-can-smoke-weed Colorado.
However, to make a long story short, it was an experience memorable for its easiness and, for once, I left the airport feeling welcomed rather than just elated to have made it through. This set the scene for what I was to encounter afterwards, for Charlotte turned out to be dwelled by some of the most welcoming, open and genuinely nice people I have seen in a while.
Charlotte seems like a city designed to stroll, thanks to its wide, tree-lined streets, many parks and warm climate, and strolling is precisely what I did, discovering a city whose populace hasn’t, as I assumed, fled away from the centre but, instead, is very much living it at any time of the day or night. I saw brass bands playing in community gardens, absolute strangers engage in conversations at traffic lights, church-goers spill over the pavement in their Sunday best, men take their horses around on a quiet afternoon.
It wasn’t all idyllic, as the sad scenes of homeless lying on the benches in Tryon street reminded me of how little was done for the destitute and the mentally ill in this corner of the US, but to see the wealthy dwellers of a high-end condominium going out to share burgers from a barbeque with people living rough told me that a strong sense of community existed, something that I wouldn’t expect in, say, London.
It’s a pity that all I have to show for such a remarkable citizenry are some very bad photos. I can blame it to having taken with me the wrong lenses (I have one set I use for landscapes, and one to capture street life) but the fact is that it takes a good photographer to capture the mood of a person, to show how nice, welcoming this man or woman can be. And I’m such a photographer.