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New York City - Post 9/11

These days practically everyone knows about the pleasures of long-haul air flights, so we won't go into descriptions of the tedium. Of course, post 911, there is the additional waiting time for pre-flight checks and in poorly organized airports, like LAX, the endless queues for inefficient checks on people and carry-on baggage. The difference in efficiency between Kennedy and LAX was very striking, with no waiting at the former, yet far more stringent checking. As we watched the computerised image of our plane crawl across the map of the Pacific on the forward bulkhead, we reflected how very much more slowly - on average about 1/100th the speed - we would be making a similar journey in a few months. We only hoped that what it lacked in speed it would make up in enjoyment. After over two and half years, it was wonderful to see family again. Describing these pleasures is always difficult. Perhaps the best we can do is to say that a typically Jackson family gathering in a fashionable NYC lunch spot was hushed up emphatically by an officious neighbor, inquiring whether we realized that we were rather noisy. It was true, but it was very happy noise. We had more sympathy from the Italian waiter, for whom our 'noisy' gathering was probably a comforting reminder of proper family life.

New York City post 911 was in some ways a more subdued place than we had seen on previous visits, but in other ways more frenetic in its determination not to be beaten by the enormity of the attacks. The reaction to terrorism among Brits during three decades of attacks has mostly accorded with the Blitz-spirit stereotypes - phlegmatic and dogged determination to maintain life at its normal pace and tenor. For the most part, walking around London or Manchester after bomb attacks, you would not be aware of greater security apart from the odd sign on trains asking passengers to watch for unattended bags. The extra security was there, but not the hype.

The USA is different, perhaps because it has experienced so very little in the way of attacks of any kind since the war of 1812. As in the UK in the face of terorism, there was virtually unanimous support for non partisan measures to respond, but there was already some concern being expressed, even in an otherwise bland media, at some of the Bush Administration's proposals for internal and external security. Americans are in any case overwhelmingly and publicly patriotic, but when we arrived in New York there were flags in some form on everything and everyone. Unfortunately this also extended to the commercial world, so that practically every television advert also had its flag and encouragement - endorsed by George W. - to be patriotic by spending. The other side of the response to 911 - the much more welcome side - is that the genuine hospitality and concern for others that is so naturally shown by most Americans has, if anything, been reinforced by their experience. In New York this is particularly striking, as New Yorkers are famous for their 'in your face' abrasiveness and even callousness; this was certainly changed. Whether the change is permanent remains to be seen. Just as he reflects many of New Yorker's virtues and vices, perhaps in turn New Yorkers have been presented with a model of what they can be in Mayor Rudi Guilliani, whose ability to leaven political toughness with personal compassion and courage has been justifiably recognised by practically everyone. Who would ever have thought that he would be Sir Rudi!

We did visit 'gound zero', not to gawp, but to pay our respects as much as anything. It was a Sunday and there were quite a few others also there. Though the atmosphere was not somber, it was respectful. Though three months had passed and people were no longer in shock, they had not come just to sightsee. If they had, there was little to see, only a huge gap, some mounds of rubble and what has come to be called the 'cathedral', the remains of the facade of one of the towers which once stood there. Most of the people walking around the perimeter of the site were Americans, non-New Yorkers, who had come to give their support and try to understand what had happened to their country.

Despite the pleasures of family reunions and outings, the big city can be something of a trial for us bumpkins, so we took a brief trip into upstate New York to look at the countryside and climb a hill or two with mud, leaves and stones under our feet. Away from the strips of motels, the scenery around Lake George and down parts of the Hudson Valley was as pretty and often as unspoiled as something from the 'Last of the Mohicans'. Away from fashionable NYC, small town America seems remarkably unchanged. The people are friendly and hospitable, but not generally all that interested in outsiders. Away from the strip malls, the centres of the older towns still have some charm. Eating out is still cheap - and challenging, because the meals are so vast.

New York City itself continues its remarkable transformation since its nadir in the 80's. Despite the impact of the 911 attacks it remains a vibrant place with a cross section of cultures at least as varied and cosmopolitan as London's. For a big American city, it has also become remarkably clean and safe. Tom's sister, Inge, spoke of walking without qualms in the evening through areas of Manhattan which 20 or 30 years ago were virtual no-go areas, even in the day time. However, despite spending a month in this lively cosmospolitan context, we did come away from the States with the overwhelming feeling that, more than most of the other developed countries in the world that we have visited, the USA and most Americans have little understanding of or desire to understand the experience and views of other countries and their peoples. For a country that has been astonishingly successful in blending so many cultures this remains an enigma.

 

 

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