In Search of the American Dream
On my plastic plate are two thin overcooked strips of fat-streaked pork belly – American bacon. I stab it with my plastic fork and it breaks into small pieces which are probably only useful as a garnish for the packet-based scrambled egg accompanying it. This is breakfast in a $300 a night New York hotel where everything is either plastic or cardboard, including some of the food. When finished, everyone dutifully deposits their used plastic and cardboard into a large bin from which the staff regularly extract the plastic bag full of rubbish and insert a new one. Every day in America there must be millions of tons of disposable stuff like this – probably enough to fill the Grand Canyon, which makes me wonder where it actually does end up. Having been in South East Asia just before travelling to America, I’m sure most Asian hotels would be embarrassed by a breakfast like this.
The American breakfast room is dominated by a wall-mounted flat screen TV on which everyone is also dutifully focussed. A news reporter is metaphorically probing a Democrat candidate in the mid-term elections with his investigative fork, trying to get his accusations to stick. I’m not surprised by the bias in his approach because this is Fox News, scourge of the Democrats, judge and jury for Hilary Clinton and owned by the man who was once an Australian citizen but who still thinks that he controls the country. After several trips to the USA, I realise how polarised that country has become under Trump. The last few years have exposed a fragility in the social fabric that has always been there but which like the bacon tends to crack and crumble if pushed and poked.
I leave the hotel that morning and head for the San Gennaro Feast in Little Italy, an annual eleven-day festival full of colour, cannoli and camaraderie. On the way to the subway I encounter preparations for the Mexican Independence Day Parade down Madison Avenue. Every street leading onto it is jammed with people in costumes, bands and dancers all warming up for their entry into the parade as it progresses down the Avenue. It’s a wild party atmosphere and no walls separate anyone … a serendipitous moment typical of that city.
Everyone loves a parade and New York probably has more than any city in the world. As the parade starts, I take up a vantage point on one of the famous New York stoops with a Mexican family who introduce themselves and give me a running commentary on the floats, dancers and costumes as they pass by. It’s a proud day for them and they relish the opportunity to share it with a stranger. The profusion of red, white and green, music and mariachi band continues for a couple of hours and I’m never tempted to leave until the end. I keep wondering if Donald is watching or hiding behind a wall somewhere.
Finally arriving at Little Italy I’m struck by the thought that this is certainly a day for the red, white and green as Mulberry Street and surrounds are jumping with music, food and everything Italian. It’s a warm day in NYC and when I drop into one of the street bars for a drink, I’m offered a seat by two young people called Owen (an Australian living and working in NYC) and Jenny (an American living and working in NYC) and, as can happen in that city, we spend the next couple of hours discussing food, travel and “the American dream” as well as engaging with some of the colourful locals.
Owen and Jenny are both doing okay working in IT and even though they love living there, they tell me that New York is a very expensive place to reside. For Australians and our current exchange rate, it hurts a lot these days. Owen and Jenny are part of the city that never sleeps and I think that if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere, it’s up to … Sorry! I was just carried away by the NYC vibe. We part company as night falls and I head off for an extremely good pizza and glass of sangiovese as the festival continues.
Best places to eat in New York
As it happens, I’m back in the same area the next day, as part of a walking tour through Soho, the Cast Iron District, Little Italy and Chinatown. This is one of those Free Walking Tours which you will now find in most cities around the world. You just pay the guide what you can afford and what you think it’s worth. Our guide, Lori, is knowledgeable and enthusiastic and the area is full of history, fascinating stories and some of the best places in New York to eat. We see the building where Heath Ledger lived and died and the cast-iron building that had the first elevator in the world.
With each new wave of migration, the area has changed over the years, although for many their particular pursuit of the American dream was not exactly easy. It was in fact their blood, sweat and tears that made America great. At the end of the tour I asked our guide the question that all Australians ask on their travels, “Where can I get a good cup of coffee?” She directed me to an absolute gem in Greenwich Village.
Café Reggio was opened by Domenico Parisi in 1927 and it was here at 119 MacDougall Street that the first ever cappuccino was poured in America. The place has hardly changed since then, complete with artwork, antique bench and the original espresso machine sitting in all its glory in one corner. Café Reggio serves coffee in real cups and it was here that my American dream was realised.
The people who came to this area of New York were in search of a better life and if you visit Ellis Island, the museum there tells both inspiring and tragic stories. The United States of America, like Australia, has often been called a melting pot and it is the diversity of people and places which gives it its appeal. But it is also a land of inconsistency and contradictions, where people are only familiar with that brittle bacon and are often afraid of anything else.
In her book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, Finnish journalist and now American citizen, Anu Partanen, compares and contrasts society in America with those in Scandinavian countries, particularly Finland. She quotes Ed Milliband, the former leader of the British Labour party, who once said, “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.” Americans can only dream about a universal free health care system and an education system based on equality.
People in America have to rely on their employment for health-care insurance, a system that is often tenuous and changeable, creating what Partanen describes as a state of constant anxiety. Funding for public education depends on local property taxes and consequently poor areas will never do as well as rich areas. The USA trails almost all Western countries on every marker related to work/life balance, fairness and equality.
However, many Americans are suspicious and scared of anything that they think could vaguely equate to something even slightly resembling socialism. There is in fact nothing socialist about the Scandinavian countries and Partanen also talks about what she calls the “Nordic theory of love”, which is really about valuing independence and people’s autonomy, humanity and equality.
It’s the diversity that makes America so fascinating and the fact that people still celebrate their cultural heritage and ethnicity. Ironically for many of those people who came in search of a better life, that better life may now be back in Europe or Scandinavia. Some people prospered and some just survived. That diversity also means that there are places in the United States where you can get very good food. There are even places where you can get what they call “Canadian bacon”, which is very similar to our Australian bacon. It is a different cut of the pig and is meaty and has more flavour. There has always been a commonality between Australians and Canadians in terms of culture, humour and a certain attitude to life. I think that these elements are also part of the curing process for the bacon.
If you can escape the toxicity of American politics and connect with people who have made the country their own, enriching it with their cultural background, then you have a much better taste of what the place is all about. Sadly, the politics is what is holding America back. Its education, health and social welfare systems are as brittle and crumbly as its bacon. Our country also has major problems but the USA could learn a lot from countries around the world who simply do many things better and smarter.
Most people are familiar with American Gothic, the iconic painting by Grant Wood that depicts an Iowa farming couple standing in front of an American Gothic-style house. I have always been intrigued by the expressions on their faces: is it naivety, fear, anxiety, disappointment with the bacon, or what? The man is holding a pitchfork but I think he should be holding a rasher of bacon. That would be much more symbolic.
· Mexican Independence Day Parade and Festival in New York City occurs every year on or around 16 September.
· The San Gennaro Feast isa festival held every September in Little Italy, New York City. www.sangennaro.nyc
· Free Tours by Foot in New York offers a number of walking tours including the Soho, Little Italy and Chinatown one and a Greenwich Village Food Tour. www.freetoursbyfoot.com