True Grits

I bought a pair of trousers—in the US only medical care and education are costly. There was a little booth that read ‘Taylor’, with a little Filipino lady sitting in it.

Yes, she told me in stilted English, she’d do the alterations as a rush job, and it would set me back ten bucks. When I came back an hour later, she asked me what I did for a living.

“You must make a lot of money,” she said.

“Not as much as I’d like.”

I told her I’d never been to the Philippines, but I’d been close. Thailand, Singapore, China.

“I lost my job,” she said. “I was working here for twenty years. Now we don’t even got insurance. My husband, he’s not working. I have no money, we are completely broke.”

On NPR, my station of choice when I drive in the States, the same story. At the end of December 2013, the benefits lapsed for 1.3 million people—those who used up six months of state compensation—in one of the endless tugs of war between the GOP and the Democrats.

North Florida is a mix of redneck South, Jewish retirees, and tourists. It’s not far enough south to be Latino land, although there’s no shortage of Spanish being spoken.

They call the eastern seaboard the First Coast, and to find out why, I made my way down to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States.

European exploration began with Ponce de Leon in 1513, twenty-one years after Columbus discovered America—unfortunately neither word applies, because the good admiral followed on from the Vikings, and never set foot in what was to become the USA.

Fort Matanzas, Florida, and the Forte de Sao Joao, Portugal, bear a close resemblance to each other (Matanzas is on the left).

Fort Matanzas, Florida, and the Forte de Sao Joao, Portugal, bear a close resemblance to each other (Matanzas is on the left).

In 1565, Pedro de Menendez founded the city, previously a Huguenot settlement. Just up from St. Augustine is Pontevedra—no doubt named in honor of Galicians on board the expedition. The men from northwestern Spain were poor and desperate, excluded by Castille for centuries, and many, including the family of one Fidel Castro, made their way to the new world.

A friend of mine used to hunt in Galicia, and his coterie remarked on a number of laborers, working barefoot to till the barren soil—all sported the most impressive habanos. It transpired Fidel sent yearly consignments of cigars to his old village.

The fort at St. Augustine seems to be the only evidence of the city’s antiquity. There are a couple of Andalucian courtyards, but the feel of the place is faux-colonial. The downtown area is a string of food and drink spots interspersed with souvenir stores.

The story of the town (it’s too small to be called a city) is aptly reflected in the name of the adjacent bay—Matanzas. The Spanish (and Portuguese) verb matar has spawned several nouns, including Matanza, probably best translated as massacre, or butchery.

After the French Huguenots, Francis Drake, pirate attacks, and the Spanish-American War, it’s not surprising there isn’t much left, but that’s no reason to turn the town into an historical disneyland.

Everywhere I saw grade school kids being taken on a tour of their nation’s European origins, but I don’t understand what they take home from the visit. There’s no sign of a church that reflects the Catholic origins of the conquistadors, or of any building older than one hundred-fifty years.

Before driving north, I passed a small graveyard created to bury the victims of a yellow fever epidemic—noting that apparently protestants were also susceptible to the disease.

Florida was (and still is) swampy; it was also pestilent, with malaria and other tropical diseases prevalent until the whole state was drowned in DDT in the 1940s and 50s.

North of St. Augustine the beaches run all the way up to Neptune, separated from the highway by endless frame houses. But once in while there’s a break, and you can access the public beach.

As I fly back to the rainy European winter, those are the memories that remain: empty stretches of sand, cold water that bites you and makes you come alive, and the ever-present generosity of the people.

In a bar, I chat to a complete stranger—turns out he’s ex-coast guard, now teaching physics at a high school; it’s not a regular school, he explains, it’s inner city.

His class has a cluster of students either side who are interested, and an island in the middle that are gang members—disaffected black seventeen-year-olds who don’t give a shit about school.

Just like in Europe, his principal wants him to push up grades—he disagrees, and his life becomes complicated. He tells me about his A, B, and C students, and we agree: A is smart and hard-working, B is one of those, C is neither.

By the time I leave, I’m invited to a blues festival—my new friend has an extra bike, and we’ll cycle down.

Mike confirms what I observe in my day to day: good jobs are hard to find, and the economic recovery isn’t there for the man in the street. Lots of properties for sale, many due to foreclosure—and yet restaurants are packed, and all my flights are full.

Gun shows are a notoriously easy way to buy weapons. And when the semi-automatics are modeled by inked ladies, who can resist?

Gun shows are a notoriously easy way to buy weapons. And when the semi-automatics are modeled by inked ladies, who can resist?

And always guns take their toll—whenever I come here it’s the same story. In November 2009, Fort Hood; this time the military base again hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

My book of choice on this trip is ‘Duty’, by Robert Gates. There’s much to be learned from his history of the Iraq and Afghan wars, at a moment when elections are held in Afghanistan, with one more year left of Western troop deployment.

As for Iraq, no one speaks about it any more—even Vladimir doesn’t get much attention. Many, even Obama voters, agree that the US strategy on Russia is toothless, which is all the more worrying because Putin has all the hallmarks of Hitler and Napoleon, and there’s only one language he gets.

But what Europe needs to understand is that fracking has turned America into an exporter of natural gas—even if still imports oil.

For the US, there’s no longer a reason to fight for energy. And Europe doesn’t have the energy to fight.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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