Garden State

As much as I loved the hustle and bustle of life in New York City, it can be overwhelming, to say the least. After the weekend that was my 22nd birthday celebrations, all I felt like doing was curling up on the couch for a few days and recovering. Mischa, Jesse and Georgia had all had to head home soon after the weekend was over, so it was back to normal life for the rest of us – well, whatever normal happened to be for me, at the time. However, instead of hiding from the city and feeling sorry for myself, Melissa and I had an interstate excursion planned. She had come bounding in from the other room like an overexcited puppy when she’d got the phone call before the weekend.
“My mom wants to make us her special spaghetti and meatballs! We’re gonna go out to my home in New Jersey, and we can spend a couple of days there, if you like.” I was always keen to check out other less frequented parts of the country and, let’s face it, I couldn’t let me only impression of New Jersey be the nightmare that was returning home from Six Flags.
“Wow, Laura is gonna make her spaghetti and meatballs for you?” Stefon seemed genuinely impressed, maybe even a little jealous. “You should feel special  – they’re kind of a big deal.” Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t able to join us for the trip, so I promised him I’d have a plate in his honour. Laura, Melissa’s mom, picked us up one evening to drive us back to New Jersey, asking questions all about the birthday weekend, as well as all the other travels I’d been doing prior to New York. She was just like Melissa in that she was so generous and kind-hearted, and I watched the the New York skyline glitter in the distance and eventually fade, happy to be surrounded by such beautiful souls.

***

I actually really enjoyed my time in New Jersey. I try to not say that with a tone of surprise, but I guess the pop culture references had planted me with a few doubts. But for every movie that I’ve seen that was set in the busy streets of New York City, I’ve also seen one set in the all-American suburbs. I don’t want to lump the suburbs of every state into one blanket stereotype, because I know how much the US can vary from region to region, so I guess the way I would describe the Marlboro Township of New Jersey is ‘cozy’. The streets were wide, yet still neat and trim, and there was a lot of trees and greenery – probably why they call it the Garden State – that made it all seem so homely. It was late by the time we made it to Laura’s place, so after a quick tour of the family home we hit they hay. The following morning, we went for a drive to with Laura to pick up Melissa’s friend Asha before driving to the state border with Pennsylvania to visit a flea market. We browsed the markets for a while, and I bought a pair of sunglasses to replace the ones Kathi had given me in Vienna, which were literally falling apart by now. Laura insisted that they were a gift from here, forcing me to put my wallet away, and afterwards we drove back over the border for her to treat us to lunch in a quite, leafy little area. I don’t remember the names of many of these places – I just let the locals take me wherever they thought was best.

I also experienced a couple of things that felt like a huge culture shock to me, but were completely normal for all of my American companions. For Laura to make her famous spaghetti and meatballs, we had to visit a grocery store. Not like the ones in New York though, which had an extraordinary range crammed into an unbelievably small space. The supermarket we went to was huge – it even had its own free wifi network. And the selection of brands within certain types of products was simply staggering. Potato chips? There had to be at least 20 different brands, all with their full range of flavours. Chocolate bars? They basically had their own entire aisle just to cater for the range of selections. I found it completely overwhelming. The other thing I found peculiar that was apparently common in these parts was drive-thru anything and everything. I hadn’t seen it as much in New York, probably because hardly anyone owns their own car in the big city, but out here it seemed to be a very standard thing. We have drive-thru establishments in Australia, but they’re usually limited to fast food restaurants, and the occasional movie theatre. But on our drive back home to New York, Laura told us she had to stop at the bank. I was expecting her to have to park somewhere and visit a branch, but instead we turned off the road an into a driveway. Yep, there was a drive-thru bank. Your money gets delivered to your car window in a little express tube. It was like Laura was a secret agent or something. There might be Americans reading this thinking, “Yeah… and? What’s the big deal?” That, my friends, doesn’t not happen in Australia. Or anywhere else in the world, as far as I have seen.

I was even impressed – or surprised, at the very least – by a drive-thru Starbucks. I mean, I guess it makes sense, but I’ve seen a lot of Starbucks all over the world (thank God for free wifi) and that one in New Jersey was the first I’d ever seen with a drive-thru lane. Melissa and Asha found my sense of wonder amusing, though I had to refrain from making the critique that this whole obsession was drive-thru’s was actually incredibly lazy – mainly because it really was just so damn convenient.

***

In the way of tourism, there wasn’t a lot to see in New Jersey. No museums, no iconic landmarks, nothing like that. The state itself is the butt of more How I Met Your Mother jokes than I can keep track of, and I guess in a way it sort of lives up to that reputation. It’s peaceful, clean, relaxing – everything that New York isn’t. But I still thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to the Garden State, not only because I spent it with such fantastic company, but because I got to see a part of the country that isn’t really on every tourists to-do list. I’m always saying that I like to live and experience places the way that the locals do, and when you visit places like the suburbs of New Jersey, you don’t really have any other choice. I saw a very different corner of the world, one that I think a lot of people are too quick to brush over when doing a tour of the US. Of course, not everyone has as much time to go off the beaten track as I did, but if you do – and you know some locals who will show you around – I would definitely recommend to any travellers to go beyond what you think you know from the corny American high school movies, and actually experience that setting for yourself. I returned to New York with Melissa feeling refreshed from my stay in the suburbs, and with a tonne of leftovers of what was potentially the best spaghetti and meatballs ever made.

A Trip to the Mall: the museums of DC

The bus to Washington, DC probably wasn’t that long (I’ve definitely had worse experiences with buses), but considering the way I was feeling after the previous evening it felt like the journey was never going to end. Getting out of New York City alone took us almost an hour, due to the sudden torrential downpour that had created havoc in the traffic and sent most of Manhattan into gridlock. What was generally a four hour bus ride would end up taking almost six hours, not including our rest stop at the border between Pennsylvania and Delaware. I got off the bus and wandered around the small shopping centre that was there, partly because my hungover self was craving a chocolate chip muffin, but mostly just to be able to add another state to the list that I had technically visited.

There's probably more of Delaware to see, but we were only passing through.

“Hello, I’m in Delaware.”

After that it was back on the bus to plough through the dreary weather for another several hours before finally making it to Union Station in Washington, DC, where I would be meeting my Couchsurfing host for the next few days. His name was also Robert, and he was a server at one of the restaurants inside the station. I had messaged ahead to let him know how late my bus was running, but it turned out that he had been caught up at work anyway, and he didn’t end up finishing until shortly after I arrived in DC, so I guess the delay worked out for the best in the end – though not for my fragile condition. When he finally finished and we’d met and done our introductions, Robert led me towards the underground metro system that would take us back to his apartment across town. The DC metro has a tap-on/tap-off system which requires you to purchase a plastic card to top up with money. There was no paper ticket alternative for short term visitors, and the system had no way to return the card after your stay, like you can with the Oyster Cards in London. But the card itself was only $2, so at worst it was still a cheap souvenir.

Robert lived in Northwest Washington which was, with the exception of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, a mostly residential area. He explained a little bit about the layout of the city and where all the major attractions and fun things to do were, but when we got home that evening I was completely exhausted from the painful experience of travelling with a hangover. Robert’s apartment was beautifully decorated but also quite small – the Murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day meant that the living room was also the bedroom – and I lasted as long as I could before eventually passing out on the couch, planning to properly starting my DC visit the following day.

***

 I’d arrived on a Thursday evening, and Robert had to work on Friday. He’d offered to take me on a tour of the famous monuments in the city when he had time on Saturday, but today I would have to entertain myself. Luckily for me, there were plenty of things to see and do in Washington DC, and even better is that a vast majority of them are free. Firstly, I went with Robert on the metro towards Union Square where his work was, then bid him farewell for the day and made my way over to Capitol Hill. It was a gloomy morning, but I still stopped to take a couple of photos and a cheeky selfie with the Capitol building.

Approaching the Capitol building.

Approaching the United States Capitol building.

Capitol selfie.

Capitol selfie.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

After that I made my way around the building and down to the National Mall, a promenade situated to the east of Capitol Hill and flanked by a handful of different museums that are all run by the Smithsonian Institution, a government ministered body that organises a range of museums, research centres, and even the zoo here in DC, as well as having affiliates in a number of other states. Because all the museums in the city are essentially provided by the government, they are all completely free to enter. During my time in Europe I had begun to suffer from a term I coined ‘museum fatigue’, but the last museum I had visited had been in London and I decided that perhaps it was time to put on the tourist cap for a little while, visit some free museums and soak up some of the knowledge. First stop was the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which was known to have some impressive exhibits. It was the main rooms that held all the visually impressive displays of early aircrafts, more modern jets and planes, satellites, rockets and a host of other spacecraft, while the rest of the museum had more details about the science and history of aviation and space travel. The museum is also home to a huge IMAX theatre, and I bought a ticket to watch a short documentary called Hubble 3D, in which I learnt a great deal about America’s history of space exploration while being soothed by the sweet voice of the narration provided by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Satellite.

Satellite.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

After the Air and Space Museum, I headed over to the other major museum that lines the National Mall: The National Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Some of my biggest passions or interests as a kid were dinosaurs and animals, especially marine animals and sea life, so natural history museums are always a bit of fun for me. There were multiple levels with halls full of animal displays, as well as some interactive exhibits about evolution and the history of the human race. And of course, there were the dinosaur displays, and I tested my own remaining knowledge from the countless hours I spent learning about dinosaurs as a child. There was even a section in the dinosaur wing with researchers and scientists working on uncovering and treating fossils. The walls were made of glass so you could see them in action, and television screens showed the samples they were working on under their powerful electron microscopes. In the insect wing, I also arrived in time for a demonstration with a couple of spiders, including a tarantula. When they volunteer running the show asked I was afraid of them at all, I had to resist the urge to tell him that I’d eaten them for dinner in Cambodia.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Dinosaur fossils.

Dinosaur fossils.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

I spent several hours at the Natural History Museum, until my feet and back began to ache from all the walking around. I left the National Mall after that, and wandered around central DC for a little while, just exploring some of the streets and getting a feel for the city. It had a very American vibe, but it was still nothing like New York – the streets were exceptionally clean, and it reminded me of Canberra, my own country’s capital city, although DC seemed to have a little bit more excitement going on than Canberra did – which, let’s face it, isn’t too difficult to do.

***

I made a few other visits to the National Mall during my time in DC. On one afternoon I visited the National Museum of the American Indian with Robert, mainly because he’d recommended the restaurant there. It was a cafeteria style eatery that served different kinds of traditional foods from all over the Americas: North, Central and South. However, that day there were also some events on to celebrate the beginning of a Latin American awareness festival, or at least a culturally educational event of some description. Whatever it was, it became dinner and a show.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional native North American culture.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional Latin American culture.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The other place that I almost visited was the National Gallery of Art, but I was there on a day when the weather was warming up, so instead of going inside I wandered around the grounds of the gallery, which was displaying a range of contemporary sculptures and artworks.

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Metal Tree.

Metal Tree.

Pyramid sculpture.

Pyramid sculpture.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very 'Alice in Wonderland' vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of 'The Thinker'. A curious work of art.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of ‘The Thinker’. A curious work of art.

There are a large number of other museums around DC, but unfortunately I only visited the main ones located around the National Mall. Some of the other ones are less famous and not as well advertised, but I have to admit that while I do find them interesting and love to take a break from the relaxing kind of holiday to actually learn something, there’s still a limit to the amount of museums I can take. So after a full day of touring the museums on Friday, a headed back to Robert’s in the afternoon for a nap to rejuvenate myself for the night out we had planned.