Saturday, September 30, 2006

Camden, New Jersey

Last Saturday, 23 Sept, I was in Philadelphia for an event at Eastern University. It was held at the Campolo School of Social Studies, located in a downtown neighbourhood and not out at the main campus in leafy St David's. Indeed when I arrived at the given address in my taxi I at first thought I was in the wrong place, until I saw a young man in an Eastern T shirt holding a printed sign for the event I was due to attend.
Students at Eastern taking the urban studies courses have to spend at least on semester studying at this location, where the university has a floor in a new, but non-descript office building. Nearby is a local homeless shelter and the area bears all the makers of urban neglect.
While I had not consciously thought of it, I was not surprised that this centre named in honour of Tony Campolo would be located in such surroundings. It bears eloquent testimony to his commitments to social justice.
After the event I met up with Laura and Jonny Mcgreevy. Laura is the daughter of Michael and Kathy Whitley, Michael being the Board chair of CCCI and my boss. Jonny has been in Philadelphia for 5 years and is now a student at Westminster seminary while being a student intern at 10th Presbyterian. Laura has been here 2 years and teaches in a school in West Philly.
Jonny came to work here with Urban Promise, the urban mission agency founded by Tony Campolo. With them he worked in an education programme in Camden, NJ, where he and Laura also used to live. (One student at Duke reflected that far from being the Garden state, New Jersey is now something of the 'armpit of America! Not sure they would appreciate that at Princeton, but then it does seem that the state is in serious trouble socially and economically.)
Saturday afternoon we went on a tour of Camden, which is just across the Delaware river from Philadelphia. Home and final resting place of Walt Whitman - and of Campbells' soup, the first manufacturing site for Biro pens and when RCA records used to manufacture all their vinyl records. It is dominated by a tall city hall on which the verse of Whitman hailing this fine city is carved. Indeed in the early 20th century, Camden was the envy of Philadelphia, industrially successful and it quaint rows of houses.
What a contrast at the beginning of the 21st Century. Camden is one of the most socially deprived and poorest cities in the US. Driving around its streets it is not that you move from typically run down city centre to ghetto and then a more up market area before entering another ghetto. It is unremitting ghetto - block after block.
80,000 people in a living social hell. It is estimated that 10,000 enter Camden each day for to but their drugs or to pick up prostitutes. Camden is probably the most disturbing place I have ever visited - and for those who know me I have worked in India and visited the slums of cities there.
The reason I find it so disturbing is the total collapse of infrastructure that we associate with a modern society. This is social metldown. Where are the federal and state authorities? From what I hear they can be part of the problem. How can this evident failure in nation building occur in the heart of the world's richest nation? And if the US can't build functioning communities in its own back yard how can they claim to do so elsewhere? Is there something inherent in the US understanding of civic responsibility which actually brings about such appalling collapse?
Yet there is hope. At the event at Eastern, the catering was being provided by one of the successes of the Campolo programmes in Camden. A catering company using local young people. creating jobs and skills. They did a great job - good food and brilliant service. And from the school projects young men and women getting scholarships to college and a decent education. Home built by Habitat for Humanity in the areas bringing some dignity.
Jonny and Laura are no the only people from N Ireland to come and work in Camden. Others are still there. Part of the effectiveness of Tony's ministry in our community has been to draw young people to come and serve in this needy place. The US / N Ireland relationship is certainly mutual in a place like Camden, NJ.
The best thing of the day - the delight of Jonny and Laura seeing former pupils doing the catering at the event and the evident welcome they got from kids in Camden as we drove around. My respect and admiration - here's hoping they return to N Ireland with all they have learnt in Camden, New Jersey.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Gorgeous Blue Devil

Its rather strange being at a Divinity School which is part of a university whose mascot is a Blue Devil. My recently acquired Duke Baseball cap has appropriately a big D on the front, and a small Blue Devil on the rear.
Where did this come from? Well apparently football (American of course) was banned at this college until the early 1920's. It was at this stage that Trinity College became Duke University in honour of its benefactor James B Duke. Second generation tobacco barron, whose father had popularised golden leaf (birghtleaf) tobacco. The new team turned out in Blue - Methodist Blue to be precise, because Trinity was a Methodist foundation, as was the 'new' Duke. Initially the team were know as the Methodists, but that did not ring too well on the terraces so to speak.
This was all post 1914 -18 and many of the young men at college had been on the Western Front. So the student newspaper renamed the team Blue devils after a renowned French fighting unit, which wore blue uniforms. Through popular usage and with no objections from the University authorities, the name stuck.
So Blue Devils is the name of any sports team from the University. Tomorrow I go to watch the football team play University of Virginia. Kate who works in the Centre for Reconciliation office and her husband, Jonathan who is on the engineering faculty, are UVA grads. As are several around here, including John Keiss, former Mitchell scholar and CCCI volunteer in Belfast, now at Duke doing his PhD with Stanley Hauerwas. David Buckley, another Mitchell Scholar and CCCI volunteer is coming down for the game from DC, he being another UVA grad. So I will be in my blue baseball cap in a sea of orange - the UVA colours - their teams are known as the Cavaliers. (UVA is of course the University of Thomas Jefferson.)
I had visited the UVA campus in Charlottesville, Virginia when here in March. It is beautiful. But I think the campus at Duke beats it. Pictures of the Main Quad area in the Duke West Campus are now posted on my website. Click on the title of this blog and follow the link to view the album. Alternatetively click on the link to my website and follow through to Adventures USA.
You will see the Divinity School and Duke Chapel which are centre stage. Remember all this was built in the 1920,s and onward. Its what money does...it buys you history. But nice place to be - gorgeous in fact.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Greeters and that greeting...

It’s a pleasant day - a bit too hot to be outside. So you move from air-conditioned apartment to air-conditioned car and drive to the local air-conditioned mall. Not to shop mind you - just to have a decent walk. At last 'Mall Walkers' make sense.

You see the signs for then in every large mall and you can sit and watch them too - with their step monitors and timers, weaving in and out of the throng.

But that is the least of your worries on a visit to the mall. There you are minding your own business, wanting to gently weave in and out of the fun shops - where a new bred of stalker lurks. It is impossible to cross the threshold of any shop or store without someone greeting you - 'Welcome to.... How are you today? May we help you find what you want?' This even applies to shops staffed by one person - we noticed this as we signed up for our pay as you go mobile phone card. While giving us a great service the only assistant in the store managed to look up from his counter every time someone crossed the open threshold and make them feel like long lost cousins.

'Well thank you and I'm only looking.' is not necessarily guaranteed to deter your host (read: shop assistant.) Some provide a short description of what is special today and will no doubt make your life complete if purchased.

I shouldn't knock the service culture. It is polite - Sir / madam - courteous and extremely concerned for your well being, but not necessarily more efficient than home. It is something of a shock after the grunt service culture of good old Norn Ireland. Our assistants at home talk a storm - only it is mainly to each other! So to be given recognition and affirmation as a potential customer is refreshing. Wal-Mart has a full time greeter at the entrance to every store - and I understand from those who have worked in retail during their student days that greeting is not simply an art form - it is a duty to be performed on pain of death or dismissal!

Of course transactions are signed off with that greeting. Is it possible to have a bad one in the US? 5 months will give us ample time to find out.

The most disturbing sighting was of Heinz - a German working at the checkout in the local supermarket. So terrified of the greeting protocols he was positively grinning and sent us on our way with an enthusiastic - Have a nice day! What is the world coming to...?

Food glorious food!

Our first visit to Kroger's was reasonably successful but long. The problem - choice. It is impossible not to be overwhelmed with the choice in food shopping in this country. It begins with the range of well stocked stores to choose from, continues to the seemingly endless variety of lines available and finds its conclusion in the dizzyingly diverse range of restaurants in which to eat.
Take peanut butter - well which do you take? On the first shop that particular isle was abandoned by our resident peanut butter consumer with an exacerbated 'There's too much choice - I can't decide now!' Now multiply that to everything - especially breakfast cereal. An Aladdin’s cave of brightly packaged goods waiting to be consumed.
Then there is the question of taste - mostly too sweet - but simply too tasty. Nothing tastes as if it is being presented in its truly natural state.
And price - how do they do it? Especially in restaurants - particularly the steakhouses. Beautiful 6 oz sirloin cooked to taste, salad, baked sweet potato with trimmings and beautiful warm bread - for two, all for $14.99 (£8-£9) in the early bird menu. And the steak is unbelievably tender - even when bought in the supermarket - again very cheap - and simply grilled (no marinade or tenderising) and I doubt I have ever had more tender and succulent at home outside of expensive restaurants.
Also everything is so light - buttermilk biscuits (scones), corn muffins - whipped butter. It appears to be national catastrophe if every mouthful of food is not sublime in taste and texture and totally sensual in its impact. Probably it’s all in the rearin' and I dread to think what hormones and additives have been put in the food on the way to my basket or plate.
It is best not to mention portions - something we are able to get a better handle on as we can now take home a box (doggy bag to those at home) and keep in the refrigerator for lunch the next day - not an option on previous touring holidays. (Alas a practice not encouraged back home due to EU regulators afraid that we will only poison ourselves and sue the restaurant.) But it seems impossible to get a moderate, never mind small portion of anything. Especially at the Cheesecake factory!
Our best discovery to date - the myriad flavours of Lindt Lindor Truffles - our favourite chocolates. Peanut butter - raspberry - and best of all - 60% very dark - not far off their 70% bar.
But I think five weeks in we are getting it in perspective. We've stopped standing and starring open mouthed as we encounter yet another gastronomic milestone in the land of plenty.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Walking on the Wrong Side

Settling into our new surroundings has been relatively easy. As part of the visa application process I had cause to list the number of times I have been in the US since 1996 - my two priors in 1989 and 1994 didn't count - but it came as something of a surprise the number of times I have travelled across the pond in that period. A second page was needed to list on my form at the International Office at Duke University. So we thought we knew our way around.
And in truth for the big things we did - we knew to grocery shop at Kroger's, to eat at Cracker Barrel and Texas Steakhouse (more to follow on this theme), what side of the road to drive on (very important!).
But its the little stuff that gets you. Like:
Bumping into to people in the corridor at the Divinity School because I keep swerving to the left to pass when they swerve to the right. (Yes walking is more dangerous than driving!)
Working out what a return filter is on the air conditioning and then figuring out the right size to buy - it needs replaced each month. (This took several days and visits to Home Depot!)
How to write a cheque (sorry check) on our new US bank account and how to fill in a lodgment slip.
How to order fried eggs with your pancake breakfast at Cracker Barrel - easy, sunny etc. (well the nearest is only 5 minutes drive away and it costs around $12 (£6.50) for us both to have brunch there at the weekend.
Which way round to put the US style two pin plug into the socket. Some have little tags on them which allow you only on way, some both, and sometimes the wrong choice produces sparks as few if any sockets are switched. (We had caught on to the light switches being up to be on and down to be off several visits ago!)
Most irritatingg of all is remembering pounds and ounces having finally adopted kilos. And thinking in gallons for the milk and orange juice while doing the shopping - nothing comes in small sizes.
Best of all - remembering to turn the knob on the lampswitch and not try to push it through - important when you wake in the night and need to get up or enter a dark apartment and reach for the switch for the uplighter!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Dangerous Clots

It's a wonder that the US is not a nation of pathological hypochondriacs. One of the things that has always amused us on previous visits is the TV advertising for various medications. Bright, healthy people who have been relieved of some major distress by the wonder drug of choice.
The effect is then somewhat ruined by a speeded up voice over which begins, 'If any of the following side effects should occur please consult your doctor' followed by a gruesome list of stomach, breathing, muscle craps, drowsiness or heart stopping ailments. Hearing these on short visits is amusing. Having them constantly repeated several times of an evening's viewing and you can become brainwashed into expecting the worst from every breath or ache.
And that's only the side effects! The medical ailments on full display each day on TV adverts would make the healthiest believe they have some acute or chronic illness.
So we really knew we had arrived when we switched on the TV in our room at La Guardia airport hotel last month to be greeted with:
'NO MATTER HOW FORMIDABLE YOU ARE, YOU'RE NO MATCH FOR A DANGEROUS CLOT!'
Guess what - A NEW life motto.

Four weeks later...Easy living

Rather late in the process I am at last getting around to making entries in the blog. There may well be a splurge as there have been many amusing incidents and quirky thoughts over the past few weeks as we have settled in our North Carolina home.
Over the last few days I have managed to drive freely around Durham and the greater Triangle area without the aid of maps - some achievement given the near universal consensus amongst locals that Durham's road network is less than organized.
Our pattern is now established - Tuesday to Thursday we travel in to the Divinity school where a nice office has been provided. It is just over a mile and a half away, but we have yet to venture walking as the weather has been so hot. This is the first time that daytime temps have settled around the mid eighties! And it even feels cool. Before the remnants of hurricane Ernesto came through it was mid to late 90's most days.
Anyway - we normally arrive around 9.30 and stay through to 5.30 on Tuesday and Thursday. Wednesday my class runs from 4 pm to 6.30 pm (more of that later). I work in my office preparing the lecture and working on essay titles and othier academic admin for my course.
Fran disappears in to one of the libraries on campus - often in the rather fine coffee shops attached to each - with full wireless access for laptops. She is sitting in on a course on Wednesday afternoons at the same time as I am teaching.
Friday through Monday is a long weekend - settling in has taken up most weekends so far with a visit to the Duke homestead being the only tourist thing to date. Church on Sunday (more later) and time to read novels, drinking coffee and sleep.
All in all a nice way to pass the days. In fact these first four weeks have flown by.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Take Off!

Welcome to my blog. Over the next few months I will be using this site to record observations and comments on living in the USA. The first 10 days has been busy settling in to the appartment, finding our bearings around Duke University, going through the various registration procedures and meeting with colleagues at Duke Divinity School.

I am here on sabbatical from my job and will be based at the Centre for Reconciliation at the divinity school.

More observations on the journey and first impressions will be posted over the next few days.