Culture Shock is a very strange beast.
It’s not the big stuff – the high-rise Miami condos and the golden beach – that’s expected, absorbed parts of the background noise. In a Brit’s constant exposure to American culture, both tele-visual and through Twitter, some stuff just sinks into your subconscious.
No, it’s the little stuff that has the power.
Some of it’s half-expected, but still humorous – driving on the wrong side of the road, overhead traffic lights and ceaseless intersections, fire-hydrants and strip-malls, the guys who put their bikes on the front of the bus (yeah, that one absolutely foxed me). Some of it’s sheer ‘I-don’t-fucking-believe-this’ comedy – the juxtaposition of sunshine and palm trees with Christmas decorations. Sign-spinners (tell me they’re not real)… and what is it about the denizens of Miami and bloody pom-pom dogs?
Some of it, though; some of it just brought me to a dead stop.
Partially it’s the poverty. There’s no shortage of it in central London, but seeing it another context is both surreal and, rather uncomfortably, too real for words. The suburbs are a tessellation of street-art, chickenwire and urban decay; over them, the skeletal overlords of the empty skyscrapers stand grim against flawless blue. Miami smells like concrete, like sun-baked stucco; I hadn’t realised how much the absence of rivers and parks bothered me until I got home.
In a city built on a swamp, where hurricanes are a fact of everyday life, such ‘urban’ things as I take for granted are luxuries. That’s kind of an eye-opener.
Coming back to the tele-visual thing – I seemed to be forever walking into filmsets. The Tobacco Road bar was waiting for Arnie and a shotgun; the very poverty itself was straight out of Robocop. The fantastic, 50s ‘Art Deco’ buildings seemed two-dimensional – had I leaned far enough over, I could’ve nudged them to fall flat. Seeing white bird feathers decorating a grave… it took a minute for me to realise that the ritual employed had, yes, been absolutely sincere.
No Danie, just because it’s a churchless graveyard doesn’t mean it’s an episode of Buffy…
The tourist in me took in The Everglades (damn those ‘gators are big!), the Coral Castle, the KidRobot store, and wandered along the sprawling pretentiousness of Art Basel… evidence of which was washing up on the beach a couple days later. Plus a shout, here, to the wonderful Tate of Tate’s Comics and Videos – when he realised who I worked for, he and his team granted me Ambassadorial status. That’s a whole new and different form of Culture Shock!
In all of this though, there’s one thing that stands out as the greatest Culture Shock of all.
Twitter has made the world smaller; broken it into bite-size pieces and allowed everyone to find their own involvement. It’s also become saturated with spammers and life coaches and soulless marketeers – it’s very bloody noisy.
And it’s all too easy to lose track of your friends.
The opportunity to meet some of those friends – people I’ve been talking to for nearly four years, people from the Little Blue Bird’s first nesting days – was a wondrous thing; I have no words to really do it justice. However small the world may shrink and however swiftly its changes may pass us by, some things are worth taking a moment to remember, and to take a hold of.
Just like the city itself, they have to be done in person.
And that’s not just Culture Shock. It’s magic.
You can read another viewpint on my visit here.