When you’ve grown up in Britain, it can be difficult to cultivate a balanced view of the USA. Such is our exposure to the States — through music, film, news and television — that many of us grow up thinking we know it. And when you think you know something, you feel more able to criticise it.
So, while the British often find themselves in awe of America and keen to seek its approval, we’re equally inclined to mock it and despair of it. And, curiously, these jibes rarely raise eyebrows among our fellow countrymen. The States, we tell ourselves, is big enough to take a bit of criticism on the chin. Perhaps, when we’re confronted with an entity as powerful and successful as the US, it’s important to be able to mock it a little, if only to restore some balance. It’s like teasing an older sibling while being secretly envious of them.
But the inescapable truth about baseless opinions is that those who hold them are ultimately limiting themselves. I speak here from personal experience, for, though I’ve never considered myself anti-America, for years I felt a bewildering lack of curiosity about the US. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to visit — it was just it always seemed such a low priority. Maybe I’d been over exposed to it. Maybe I had jaundiced ideas of what it would be like. Or maybe, like many others before me, I just thought I already knew it.
Then, about four years ago, I was given a chance to break my transatlantic duck with a short stay in Chicago. Upon arrival, I spent an hour stuck in a snaking airport security queue before finally emerging into a traffic jam. It was a bad start. But from then on, things got better and better, and by the time I was ready to leave, I’d realised something very profound: that I’d been a complete idiot.
What a mesmerising city Chicago is, and what a first impression it makes (once you’re out of the airport). This twinkling lattice of pristine streets grafted onto the banks of mighty Lake Michigan is an intoxicating combination of exuberance and taste. With a glamorous present and a glittering past, it’s a city that has much to boast about — after all, it is the birthplace of the skyscraper. And yet there’s nothing remotely flash about it.
But while it can consider itself the precursor of our modern-day glass-and-steel metropolises, in Chicago, even the tallest buildings are steeped in history. From its looming art deco monoliths to Frank Lloyd Wright’s squat, yet stylish, Rookery Building, the city’s architectural legacy hits you with a force many European old towns struggle to match.
Elsewhere, you’ll find reminders of Chicago’s weighty contribution to those two most seductive of industries: crime and music — from the stomping grounds of besuited prohibition-era gangsters such as Al Capone to the stages that first brought us the sounds of Muddy Waters, Nat King Cole and Curtis Mayfield.
During that first crisp December day, I did all the things a tourist ought to do: inched my way through dense wedges of pizza pie, recoiled at Soldier Field — the grotesque stadium of the Chicago Bears — and spent an absorbing couple of hours in Buddy Guy’s Legends blues club.
I visited Millennium Park, a beautifully laid-out space that was full of surprises. Forget swings and duck ponds, and picture instead a stunning Frank Gehry-designed outdoor concert venue; a high-tech, 50ft fountain that projects video images of 1,000 Chicagoans spitting water; and a stainless-steel, bean-shaped sculpture, inspired by liquid mercury. There’s surely no other park like it on Earth.
To think, I nearly missed out on all of this because I thought I knew America. Well, it turns out I knew nothing. And if I could be so wrong about its cities, then what about its towns, its resorts, its national parks and its countryside?
Over a weekend of revelations, perhaps the biggest was the people, who seemed determined to confound every US stereotype going. Friendly and curious, yet never fake or fawning, the natives I met seemed to exude confidence and pride. But this wasn’t the in-your-face national pride that sits so ungraciously in the mouths of the powerful; this was pure civic pride, fuelled not by a flag, but by the knowledge they inhabit one of the most beguiling cities in the world.
They’ve certainly got plenty to be proud about. And I wonder if they’ve got room for one more?
Published in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of © National Geographic Traveller (UK)