Sunday, October 25, 2009

Back from a Land I Thought I Knew

This is my first post in quite some time, as I haven't really been traveling to new lands to write about. I know, I know... I'm right here in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, with high speed train tracks radiating like the oft-compared bicycle spokes to all points in Europe. I'm within transit distance of two international airports, and if I lose any semblance of sanity and want to fly RyanAir, there's a third airport within reasonable distance. I should be populating this blog with all sorts of stories that scream, appropriately, "Omid Abroad!"

The thing is, I have a job. My wife does not, and by the good graces of labrynthine French immigration policy, can not. This means that not only do I not have time to fly/train off to various parts of Europe - as close as it may all be - we're also flat on our ass much of the time. So anyone who thinks we're living a glamourous life in Paris should check themselves. The cost of living is higher, our combined income has been cut in half, and I'm too damn tired to do anything in my free time anyway.

Enough bitching, though. To be honest, we have traveled. We spent our year's leisure allowance on a trip to California and Washington this summer. Sure, that's exciting for some people, but other than the pleasure of seeing our family and friends (and attend weddings and see new babies), it's like a Thanksgiving trip home, not a vacation. "Travel" is only a functional part of a trip like this. Even when road-tripping the entire west coast of the United States, it's all familiar territory. Nothing to write home (nor blog) about.

Why, then, am I now bothering to write about my more recent trip to the US? Particularly one mostly mandated by and covered by work? One where the lack of sleep and aching fatigue at the end is due more to nights spent actually working than hedonistic overindulgence?

Because in less than two year's time, the United States of America has become a foreign land to me. After 21 months of living in France, I find myself as bewildered and bedazzled in America as the poor saps who have to be finger-printed and retina-scanned when they arrive in the country.

Of course, this could be because I went to Atlanta.

I made friends with another American in Paris this summer, and when I told him my next trip back would be to "the ATL" (as the rappers locals call it), his words of advice on his old stomping grounds were, "Vaya con dios." Not very encouraging. I chalked it up as perhaps some deep-seeded resentment against one's old home, much as I dislike the suburban wasteland surrounding San Francisco, and thought to myself "It can't be that bad."

It can.

From the moment one lands in Atlanta, it feels as back-assward and fuck-tarded as possible. That's because once you arrive at the airport, you pick up your baggage, cruise down the concourse and... Check your bag again. Then you exit the baggage claim area... And go through security. Mind you, this is on the way OUT of the airport.


After waiting at the carousel to pick up my luggage (a second time), I managed to find a shuttle to get to my hotel for the week...

The W Midtown Atlanta Hotel, like other W hotels, is nice. The rooms are well-appointed. Service is adequate for business. And the decor is modern chic. They call it "Techno-Glam." My US colleagues better summed it up as "Ghetto Fabulous."

As shiny and new as everything seems, it's all of cheap build quality: Made more to look good than perform well. Like all the Chrysler 300Ms and similar cheap luxury cruisers pulling up out front, there's a lot of flash but not a whole lot of substance. The parallel was sadly true with Atlanta itself.

There's only one downtown Atlanta, but three "centers" with glimmering highrise buildings and public thoroughfares. Going by my cursory rounds through them, many of these buildings are half (and some fully) empty. On our first jaunt out - on a Sunday - some colleagues theorized that being in the Bible Belt, it was unsurprising that things would be closed on the so-called day of rest. But this is capitalist America, I reminded them. Someone's always up for makin' some money. Apparently, that someone is whomever hung up all the "FOR LEASE" signs on all these buildings. Religious observation, my ass...

Certainly, though, there is some charm to the whole Bible Belt thing. I don't mean the whole quaint closed-on-Sundays thing. We have that in France and I actually do appreciate having one day a week that's not all work and commerce. I mean the earnestness of outwardly religious folk, especially in the South. I mean, where else would you see the Je-bus? Hellfire coming from the front wheels and all!

In an economically depressed and/or disadvantaged area, sometimes religion is the only light that shines for people. And if it helps them keep their chin up and stay motivated, then more power to them. It's oddly comforting that the force keeping a Downtown Atlanta crackhead from attacking you is the Bible-thumper intervening to teach him the Word. Divine intervention? Maybe.

The other interesting thing in areas with an economically lower stratum: Public transit! While in world metropolises, underground and elevated trains are how the masses get around without the hassle of car ownership or traffic, in sprawly American places like Atlanta (or Los Angeles) they're the domain of people who can't afford cars to get to their jobs serving the upper strata.

MARTA - Atlanta's transit system - is somewhat limited, the subway stops are pretty far in between, and your chances of being accosted by a crackhead at the station is pretty high. On the other hand, it runs smoothly, moves fairly quickly, and the cars are spotless. In fact, MARTA puts the San Francisco Bay Area's BART to shame in terms of cleanliness. Although the cars are practically identical, MARTA uses shiny plastic seats and linoleum floors - surfaces that can easily be kept clean. BART for some reason uses bum piss-absorbent cloth upholstery and shit-absorbent carpeting.

It's while riding the MARTA train between fancypants neighborhoods like Midtown and Buckhead that the economic disparity starts to get in your face. (Sometimes literally.) One of the things I love about Paris (and loved about San Francisco) is that the glam and the grit are interwoven, within mere meters of each other. Sure, both have their wealthy enclaves far from the seedier districts, but in general there is much more of a mixture. I didn't feel this in Atlanta. Between the wealthy, well-to-do "islands," I found run-down tracts and many have-nots hanging out in them. I wondered how often they're run off by the doormen and valets of the highrises in thenicer areas, surrounded by manicured greenery. I felt a true sense of segregation. The only thing they really share is that there are shit-tons of parking lots. More parking spaces than people.

While I find this sort of extreme stratification a bit depressing, I still think it's terribly fascinating. More so than the CNN or Coca-Cola tours some of my colleagues were happy to indulge in. Why didn't I bother with those? Well, I'm not partial to lousy sensationalized news nor high fructose corn syrup-based soft drinks, so why would I want to see the PR version of how they work? That'd be like me taking visiting vegan friends to a French foie gras farm.

Also, I worked too much to go sightseeing. Night and day. It's what I do at these company events, and why I get sent thousands of miles and get to stay at (somewhat) fancy hotels and order room service. I sleep a couple of hours a night, and mostly stay confined to the event. As such, one might think that I'm not qualified to judge Atlanta since I spent the better part of the week cloistered in my "Techno-Glam" surroundings. But I'm pretty seasoned at this stuff and I had seen enough.

As the BET Hip Hop Awards rolled into town at the end of the week - and with it all the rappers and their entourages in their 300Ms (and sometimes real luxury cars) - I got an even better glimpse at Atlanta. In the elevator with Big Someone and Li'l Someone-Else, one said to the other, "Man, it's all rappers in this hotel this weekend." The other replied, "It's all rappers in the ATL all the time. Everyone in Atlanta's a rapper."

The elevator door opened to the smell of insanely huge amounts of unsmoked weed. By the time evening rolled around, the entire hotel floor (or several of them) smelled like a Rastafarian wedding. And can you blame them? If I had to live in the 404, I'd want my reality to be as blunted as possible, too.

I've been to numerous places around the world. And numerous places around America. Yet I'd never been so happy to get on a plane and get out of a town as I boarded a Delta flight at Atlanta airport that Saturday.

I tweeted that day, "On the way back to civilization." (Gotta love in-flight Wi-Fi!) A few people mistook me to mean that I was on my way back to Europe. I was actually on the way to New York. My father-in-law then joked "Atlanta must be bad if you call NYC civilization???" Hey, I needed to decompress before coming back to Paris, and flying via New York actually cost less anyway.

But New York City? Civilization? My in-laws weren't the only ones questioning my sanity.

Despite my love for farms, mountains, and the great outdoors, I'm a city boy. Words cannot express how much I dislike suburbs, suburban sprawl, and big parking lots. I love the city and will counter anyone who says city life is awful. Anyone who tells me that you can't breathe in the big city obviously hasn't heard of this word: Rooftops.

Or parks. Or playgrounds. Or well-planned public spaces. Efficient transit. Bars. Restaurants. Amazing ethnic joints.

Certainly, you can get these things in suburban-sprawl-land, but not in the sort of concentration that a place like New York offers. When I wasn't sleeping (which is what I do after working without pause for a week), I breathed in, drank up, and - mostly - ate whatever NYC could offer. To me, my brief jaunt to New York was a chance to rest, catch up with friends, and partake in a three-day orgy of food and drink.

Of course, one can't live on halal street carts and trendy ramen alone. I walked up and down Manhattan, strolled through various parks, and got introduced to the community gardens of Alphabet City. One of them even has a bit of urban beekeeping going on!

Here, I was, in one of the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods around the East Village. As my friend explained about Alphabet City when we made our way to his Avenue D apartment, "Avenue A, you're alright. B, you're brave. C, you're crazy. D, you're dead." Yet somewhere between Avenues C and D, I was in a tranquil garden, enjoying the harmonious buzzing of honeybees.

Take that, Atlanta!

The final night of my sojourn in New York, we went by one of the Lower East Side hipster hangouts, the Cake Shop (which actually does serve cake), to drink some beers and catch some live music. On the bill, they had four bands. None of whom I'd never heard of, none of whose songs I knew, but any of whom could probably hold their own at any of the crazy overpriced venues of Paris.

Admission was only four dollars.

Of course, this is probably because for every rapper in Atlanta, there are ten indie-rockers in New York. It's the economics of things, and New York has more than enough supply to meet demand.

I've spent much of the time here trading in blanket generalizations. And maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps rich and poor hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" as they stroll through some amazingly cool parts of Atlanta. And I'm sure there are folks in Jersey or Long Island living a much more fulfilling life than they ever would in Manhattan.

Frankly, I'd love to find out more about that.

Yes, I can easily cross one of the surrounding borders and then write and write and write about different lands and funny customs and show you how to use the odd contraptions therein.

But sometimes it's going on a business trip to a land I once thought I knew that raises the most questions.