So, I’m in the Midwest on what is, ostensibly, a research trip, but might be more truthfully categorised as a four-week long gawping residency. I’m at the marvellous and upstanding Dalkey Archive Press (support ’em, they’re the good ‘uns) at the University of Illinois, spending hot, sticky Midwestern days prying into the personal correspondence of writers too dead to complain about it, and too obscure for any (scratch that, many) other buggers to care. Man, if you only knew the handwriting I’ve caressed these past two weeks. The press itself operates out of what looks like a ship’s container, hoisted into the middle of the university’s Department of Veterinary Sciences. Perhaps this is all a Pygmalian-esque exercise in improving the reading habits of horses, I’m not sure. And, of course, I’m griping about the heat, the humidity, the rare-ass “sharp” cheddar, with all the vigour of a big old limey jonesing for her first shot at being “exotic”.
Anyway, here’s the bit where I note, smugly, that all your worst suspicions about America are true:
#1. Bread. Now, I’m not about to get all precious about crust and olive oil content, but, my God! I have never seen – and made puerile pantomime with – so many flaccid baguettes. Supermarkets here appear to be shilling tawny pillows with delusions of grandeur.
#2. Cars. On the subject of bread, it’s a 45-minute hike for a loaf. Yes, yes, I get it, I’m in a town in the Midwest, what did I expect? However, I still can’t get used to the fine-honed logistical operation required to, you know, buy a cup of coffee. These cities are built to four-wheel dimensions, and it’s making all my urbanist nodes ping. I didn’t see a single other pedestrian for the first four days I was here, and I’ve ended up feeling rather embarrassed about using the pavement, like the gap between the roadside and the verge is here for decorative purposes only, and I’m despoiling it.
#3. The constant imagined threat of tornadoes. The weather is big here, massive. On Memorial Day (in a despair at not receiving a single invite to a festive cook-out from my new friends on the checkouts at Schnucks), I was shaking the torrential rain out my hair outside Walgreens like a fetid Labrador, when a ginormous bolt of lightning came down from the sky directly above. It was quite the Gothic scene. Now, I’ve no doubt my colleagues’ stories of Tornado Terror are in almost completely directed towards, let’s say, “yanking my chain”, but “ominous wind” seems to mean something rather different here. Like a good and cautious Girl Guide, I demanded the pleasant be-slacked men in the Accommodation Office here drill me in What to do in the Event of an Emergency. Apparently you just hide in the cellar.
And with that, and the uncomfortable knowledge that my cultural experience thus far seems to extend as far as bread and cheese, I’m out.