Travels in a Fictional Country

Is everyone in the U.S.A. just a product of a fertile imagination?  
Photo by: Heeb Christian/Dinodia Photo Library
Photo by: Heeb Christian/Dinodia Photo Library

Look, don’t read too much into this, but I partly fell in love with Florida because of a serial killer. What I mean, of course, is a fictional one: Red Dragon, the Hannibal Lecter-universe movie took me to Marathon, a city in the Florida Keys, and a stupendously beautiful place. I could move there and not even bother to pack my bags—white sands, perfect nodding palm trees and not too many people, except of course for the serial killers, who come with the place like fries come with ketchup. But hey, that’s the U.S.A. for you.

Well, obviously, it isn’t quite like that, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell. More than any other place on Earth, we know about the U.S.A. primarily through fiction, and oh boy, does that make a difference. Everyone in New York is either a cop, a lawyer, in the Mafia, or wisecracking over really sick-making, huge cups of coffee. If you live in L.A., you’re either a drug dealer or a struggling actor who routinely gets caught in black-comedic crime capers, or rich and desperate and probably a housewife. Everyone in the South “tawuks lak theeyus,” and if you’ve reached senior-officer level in the police or military, it’s clear you’re just a brain-dead goof who keeps ignoring the terrific guy working under him, just because he’s a bit of a maverick, and is also called Maverick. If you have a British accent, I’m sorry, you’re destined to be an arch-villain or a butler or a super-genius nerd, and in any case, your chances of a violent death are astronomical. Oh, and if you have your sweetheart’s photo in your wallet, I’m glad you bought life insurance, is all I’m saying.

This applies to places too. It never, ever rains in L.A. (unless someone mentions the seven deadly sins, and then you really should just get the hell out of there). If you drive out of L.A., in about 30 seconds you’re in Utah, where all the rattlesnakes hang out by the side of the road, hissing and striking at your car’s tyres as you pass by. (Life hack: when facing a rattlesnake, try very hard not to look like a passing tyre. Hard for some, I know, but important to remember nevertheless.) In New York, it’s always either autumn or winter, and there are only three places at all in the city: the Underground, the skating rink in Central Park, and a food cart run by someone who only nods.

It’s great advertising, of course—every time I’ve been to the U.S.A., my travel has been about ticking bizarre things off lists. Salt-water taffy and ice-cream sodas from Archie Comics, driving into the sun on Sunset Boulevard, getting into a high-speed police chase while being involved in a humongous misunderstanding, things like that. What it does, though, is make you forget that there’s a real country there with real people, and that there’s actually a lot to see beyond what you see on TV. I mean, how often in the movies do you see New England, with its farm-to-table movements and lovely little university towns, or Big Sur and excellent craft beer? California is more than L.A. and S.F.—the redwoods are probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen, but they don’t shoot people, so they don’t make for good TV. Oh, and the Native Americans in New Mexico know a hell of a lot about villages in India, which makes you feel a bit of an idiot for having underestimated them, like every white-man-gone-native cliché.

There’s also the flip-side. Case in point: a conversation I overheard the other day, someone telling someone else about not wanting to go to the U.S.A. Understandable. Before I went and let all the pop-culture references get to me, I hated the thought of going there. If anything, the big cities end up sounding unfriendly, the wilds murderous, and the small towns full of Stephen King’s imagination, so why would you go? And you know it all anyway, because you have Netflix. Plainly, that’s rubbish. If anyone in the U.S.A.’s listening, please make better movies, okay? Or, at least more realistic ones, so we won’t be surprised when we come over and see real people. By ‘real people’ I mean people who don’t routinely fight off aliens, blow up terrorists while armed only with chewing gum and some killer lines, or have dogs called Brinkley. I mean, Brinkley.

I might be wrong, of course. If you’re single and looking, move to a big American city and become a celebrity chef. It certainly looks guaranteed to work. Just don’t put any photos in your wallet, okay?

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    Vardhan Kondvikar is a travel, car, and humour writer and editor, who is known for road trips, generalised exasperation and far too many bathroom stops.

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