My Sojourn in the Carolina's - Part I


This is the first of no doubt many updates on my life and travels over here in Davidson, USA. This part covers the first month and half.

The flight from Sydney (where I live) was long and boring, as expected. About 16 hours, I think. I didn't have a row of seats to myself, like most others, so I didn't get any sleep. The inflight movies etc were boring - can't even remember what they were. But there was 12 channels of music provided - from classical to modern, so that saved the batteries in my walkman, and my sanity. The food? A mixed bag; some good, some bad. Just after the flight left it went to San Francisco time, so tea (dinner) was served at about 2-3pm Sydney time - for the day "before" I left, since SF is about 20 hours behind Sydney time. Breakfast was at about 2am Sydney time and arrival at SF a few hours after that. The only things of worthy note was the rather amazing sunset we flew over, mid Pacific. We were above the clouds (naturally) and everything was a golden-red colour. Almost as good as a decent red Sydney sunset. *grin* Well, okay, it might have been better. Also caught sunrise just out of SF, not as good but still pretty impressive. More yellowish than the sunset.

SF. San Francisco. Centre of California. Beaches, sun, surf and girls eh? Not quite. It was pouring rain and cold for the whole three hours I was there (and I was stuck at the airport, not that I wanted to go anywhere in that weather). Typical London - or Melbourne - weather! No problems with Customs - they didn't even search my bags. Just asked if I had anything to declare. So I declared several jars of vegemite, a substance some would consider a toxic substance, you have to be reared on the stuff to be able to stomach it. *grin* Customs was fine, Immigrations before that wasn't. Because I didn't have a job back home and I was applying for a 6 month visit, they sent me to a review officer where I had to plead my case. After 45 mins waiting for my turn, I gave the officer a stack of paperwork I'd assembled for my visa back in Sydney; that and a bit of fast talking and he reluctantly stamped my passport with a 6 month entry permit .. all the while saying "unusual, unusual.."

After that it was a 2 hour wait for the flight to Chicago, my next stop. I didn't want to fall asleep _then_, so I got some cola (with caffeine) to keep me awake. I should have listened to the experts - I was sick almost right away and stayed that way for the next few days. Could have been the airline breakfast food I guess .. either way I was sick. No chucking or anything like that, just felt nauseous. The Chicago flight was crowded, but I think I managed to get an hour's sleep before we hit turbulance - but it's hard to tell, I was too much out of it by then.

Chicago. Living up to it's reputation, it was cold and windy. (Here in the USA it's called "The Windy City"). The airport warm and calm .. well, as calm as an airport can be! The flight to Charlotte was late leaving (as was the one to Chicago), but managed to get to Charlotte on time. A smaller plane again and even more crowded than my previous leg.

Charlotte. Almost there! Met my girlfriend at the airport - I wont go into any further details about that. *grin* Collected my luggage - it all arrived intact and at the right airport, in spite of all those traveller's horror stories. Then a 30 min drive from the airport to Davidson. By that time it was almost 9pm local time, having changed to three different local times during the trip, and 36 hours or more with virtually no sleep. I was able to shower and do a little unpacking before I crashed into bed. Despite my lack of sleep, I didn't get much sleep that night; it wasn't until 6am that I was able to finally get some decent sleep - about bed-time back in Sydney. I more or less slept the whole next day and took about three days to adjust to the time change.

The house I was staying at was quite old - predates electricity in those parts and it's construction displays a certain lack of "accuracy" (not everything is square .. for that matter, not much is) - and it is showing it's age a bit (or lack of care on the part of the landlord); but for all that it's a wonderful place with lot's of character. Just had the roof restored and there was some water damage to the ceiling .. and there was still a leak in the master bedroom (fortunately in the closet), which wasn't fixed for quite a few months. I guess like country areas everywhere, things move slow there. It's a two storey house and I (we) had the top floor - a two bedroom flat (apartment), with one of the bedrooms also doubling as a study. There's central heating/cooling, so even thought it may be below freezing outside, inside it's a comfy 22 degree's (celcius).

A few days after arriving, went browsing thru' a local used goods shop run by "Habitat for Humanity." They build homes for the poor, all over the world, but mostly in the USA. Picked up some neat furniture and pretty cheaply too .. hardly any in the house when I arrived (my girlfriend had only arrived herself a few months previously).

In the handwritten version of this letter I drew a map showing the main roads, towns etc in the area and where we were living. Have to do it the hard way here. Some 22 km (14 miles) due north of Charlotte (largest city in North Carolina) is Lake Norman, a fairly sizable man-made lake, 30 x 10km, running north-south. On the east coast of the lake, about half-way along, is Davidson.

Davidson. A pretty small country town of some 5000 or so peple, 2000 of whom are from the College, either students or staff. The college predates the twon and the latter is named after the former. Originally the town was "Davidson College Town." But fortunately it has since been shortened! The college was founded in 1837, the town officially "incorporated" as a township in 1879. Like country towns everywhere that lie off the main highways, Davidson is quiet, has little traffic and has the typical relaxed country feel. A lot like Armidale (in country Australia, where I lived a few years back), in climate, people and atmosphere - but about 1/5th the size.

The house is just a block or two from the main street (predictably enough called Main St) and opposite the College.

One thing that immediately stuck me as unusual was the house numbering used there. In Australia, and many other places, as you travel down a street, the number of the house (or whatever) increases by two, so 42 Zaphod Street is adjacent to numbers 40 and 44 on either side (and is likely opposite 39, 41 and 43 on the other side of the road). Not always that simple, but most times that's the case. In the US, it's different. Numbering there (usually) starts at 100 and goes up to the next 100 at the next block, irreguardless of how many homes/shops etc are in the block - if the entire 3rd block is a park, then there are no 300 numbers for that side of the street. 426 (the street number where I was staying) means that it's in the 4th street block from the end. The 26 doesn't mean the 26th or 13th house either .. if there are four homes on a block then they are numbered (for example) 400, 424, 450, 474 and 498. The houses on either side were 418 and 432. It makes it a LOT more difficult to find a particular street number by counting down street numbers like I'm used to... I told it makes sense, but I'm not so sure. Main St, Davidson was even worse .. I went looking for #305. I found 235, the next premise was 305 and the one immediately after that was 400-something! I guess all this explains why most USA addresses have street numbers in the thousands.

Churches. There are a lot of churches around here - it is the USA with a church attendence of 42%, not Australia with it's 8%. Most have congregations of 1000 or more, something I wasn't all that comfy with. The smaller ones are usually not so good. For instance, the Episcopalian Church (the anglican church here) at Davidson is very small, with only a dozen or so people and short services - not to mention rather suspect theology (from my point of view). Going to church here seems to be a cultural thing, so it doesn't mean all that much and there's a lot smaller proportion of genuine (believing) christians in the churches than, say, Australia (where to admit going to church often opens you up to ridicule). Frist one I tried was fairly typical of a less traditional presbyterian church. A few hymns, a few very subdued choruses (compared to what I'm used to in Australia), prayers for the sick etc in the church, communion and a sermon. No confession prayer or the like. The only "audience" participation was the singing. Very good and clear preacher .. alas I can't say I agreed with much of what he said. His beliefs seemed to be right out of the moral "right". The US federal election was a few days latter and he gave an empassioned speech supporting the republican party (who would be on the extreme right of Australian politics). That was bad enuf - I don't agree with bringing politics into the church (or vice versa), let alone into the sermon - but he started off by saying he was going to give an unbiased sermon, siding with neither political party. Hypocrisy from the pulpit I have little tolerance for.

The federal election. My impression? A LOT more disorganised than in Australia. No wonder only 10% or so vote. I went along with some friends who were voting. Voting is during the week (in contrast to being on a saturday here), so you have to either take time off work or hope you get there before poll's close in the evening. There was one polling place for all of Davidson and surrounds - over 5000 voters and over 3000 voted (higher than the national turnout). And there were only 10 polling booths! When we arrived there was several 100 people in line and it took over an hour before the people I came with could vote .. all that time standing in the evening cold (it was 7pm by then) and being "bombarded" by people pushing one party or another .. and one doesn't just vote for a local representative and a senate rep for the state, one votes for them, the president, Secretarial positions (ministries as called in Australia), a whole slew of state and local offices (federal, state and county positions are all voted for at the same time and on the same form). Not just politicial positions but also judicary ones. It takes a LONG time, even if you know how to vote. Down here, voting often takes as little as 10 minutes, including waiting in the line to vote, and it can take as little as two ticks to complete your voting forms. And in just the suburb I live in, there was one pollting station with over 100 voting booths. No wonder the turnout is so low in the US .. they dont know how to run an election, or at least a democratic one. Then again, maybe that's the whole point of it.

North Carolina is a lot wetter than Sydney and I arrived in the wet season, so it was raining more often than not. No hassle with that - it's light misty rain most of the time, quite beautiful to watch - and relaxing. Alas there's still that leak in the roof.

A few weeks after I arrived, we went on a weekend trip to Atlanta. My girlfriend had to give a seminar and defend her PhD thesis at Emory University, which is in Atlanta. The trip was about a 5-6 hour drive. Wish I could say a lot about the trip, but it was mostly at night, so not much to see. Passed all the way through South Carolina and well into the heart of Georgia. There was a pretty impressive sunset on the way there. American interstate highways are nothing like the ones in Australia. They criss-cross the whole country, each one with no traffic-lights, stop signs or the like the whole way. All this at a fairly high speed (and with a minimum speed too : 70 kph most places) .. and not the one or two lanes you find in Australia, these highways can have 8 lanes or more in places and never less than two, so I'm told. Most of the way there were 3 or 4 lanes, each way. Even if you are driving through the centre of a major city it's the same. The only difference is there are more lanes and more exits/entries. The sides of the highway are usually landscaped so you don't see much of the city anyway, just the high-rise poking above the sides of the embankments.

Spent the weekend based at a friend's place. Most of saturday was spent at Emory Uni while my girlfriend gave her seminar and then had a meeting with the people who were marking her thesis. (Yes, she passed). Me, I wandered around, sightseeing and taking lots of photo's. Got some really neat ones of the Atlanta skyline as the sun was setting over it. Celebrated by going to the "Olive Garden", a local pasta restaurant (someone's crazy about pasta..).

Sunday it was off to church and then to Stone Mountain, said to be the largest exposed granite monolith in the world. Seemed no larger than Bald Rock, near Tenterfield, Australia, but then that's not entirely exposed. A tad more touristy though. There's a big tourist centre/museum at the base and a cable car to the top. Wonderful view from the top, but VERY windy and cold. Walked down a trail and then drove around the mountain - there are lakes etc along one side as well as the remains of the olympic velodrome (which has been pulled down). The mountain is also a USA civil war memorial - to the losing side - and has a huge carving of three Southern "heroes" on the side, many times life- size.

Impressions of Atlanta. What I got to see of it, that is. Cold. A lot colder than Sydney in the same season - they even forcast snow for the evening of the day we left. It's also a very leafy city. Seems more trees than buildings and power poles. Trees everywhere! From a tall building the city looks just like a forest, with the occasional taller building poking through. From the sky it looks like a forest with roads. Few signs that the olympics were there only a few months ago.

One bonus of living in a college town is that there's a pretty good cultural programme, the highlight while I was there was the "Winter Solstice Concert Series". The first that I went to was a series of performances by a some very talented musicians. There was a pianist (Phillip Aagerg), a guitarist and singer (Tuck and Patti) and a group of violinists and a cello player (Turtle Island String Quartet). Each of the three played "solo" and together. Mostly serious music, but they did ham it up on a few tracks, especially the pianist. The music ranged from jazz and blues to classical to hymns and celtic back to modern rock. A wonderful fusion of different musical styles.

Well, I've spent ages describing my impressions of the town and all that. Pretty much a small country town devoted to education, much like Armidale in Australia. Differences, yes, but that's to be expected. Like Atlanta it's very leafy here - lots of tree's everywhere. Unlike Atlanta where most of the trees were green, the ones here are mostly yellow and orange, with the leaves falling for autumn - I missed the big colour change by a few weeks.

Before I finish off I thought I'd make a list of some of the differences I've found here. Most things are the same as in Australia. Well, the accents are different, the politics, the roads and driving are different - but that's expected. It's the small things that take getting used to.

Toilets. Well, one has to start somewhere! The first few times I encountered toilets here I thought they were broken or blocked - the water in the bowl reaches up almost to the seat. In fact, the one time I've seen a toilet (WC whatever) where the water level was as expected in Australia, it was blocked!

Taxes. Sales tax is not included in the marked price of an item, unlike Australia. When you total up your bill (or the cashier does it), a further 6% or so needs to be added on - it varies from state to state. A bit of a shock when you go up to the counter with a $9.60 item, and expect to pay for it with a $10 note only to be asked for a further 20 cents.

Light switches are all the opposite way around - off is down and not up. As well, power points have no switches on them .. which to me seems a trifle unsafe. To turn off an appliance you have to yank out the cord.

On the subject of household fixtures, that other household staple, the tap, is vastly different here. Instead of the expected knobs for hot and cold water and one or two taps, here there's just one knob. You rock the knob up or down to turn the water on or off and control pressure and rotate the knob (or lever) for hotter/ colder water. Takes a lot of getting used to, but it's a lot more convienient actually.

Phone calls from home here are free. Well not quite. You pay your rental bill, but that covers unlimited local calls .. which means no more complaints from the bill-payer about the soaring phone bill. Mind you, this enlightened policy does not hold for long distance or overseas calls. Oh well, can't be too greedy, I guess. *grin*

I could probably come up with stacks more - funny names for things, funny money, wierd prices (some things a lot cheaper than in Australia, some things a lot more expensive). But this is getting long enough as it is, so I'll bring it to an end for this part.

Davidson, North Carolina,
2nd December, 1996.

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