Monday, July 19, 2010

Life on Mars

A visit to Williamsburg is like going to Mars, or Hell. 
It looks a bit familiar, in a Christopher Wren, Tom Sawyery kind of a way, but overall, the atmosphere is alien. OK, cowboy-and-alien. Don't let the Union Jacks fool you for a moment. This is Americana; restrained, elegant, v ancient, even - but definitely New World.
Wide, aspirational streets lined with quiet clapboard houses that are discreet, not modest. Some of them are still private residences, the line between the two is traced very faintly. 
Williamsburg is Old money, shedloads of money and academic gravitas (William and Mary is a stone's throw from the Capitol building) of the sort that makes the presentation of US history feel as serious as a heart attack at the Mayo Clinic. Everything is under control. 
  A city, but not a huddle-together town, as you'd find in Europe; despite the potentially hostile hinterland, everything's very open plan, partly because  your Sunday-afternoon transport can't be left to sit in the garage all week.
Heat. It must have shocked those first pioneers, used to the lukewarm English summers. For us, used to air conditioning, it's equally shocking, out of the world. It's hot like a long, wet, reptilian throat, swallowing every bit of initiative.
How could they be so precise, in this weather?  How can you get anything done, in fact... how can you even care. the heat gets inside your bones and between your synapses. I can't believe that the prospect of getting rich, or nation-building would make you do it. Suddenly the concept of forced labour makes a lot more sense - cruel to say so, maybe, but if it weren't for threats and torture I don't see how anything would have gotten done. You'd have to be pretty afraid for your personal safety to dig up stumps and make bricks here.
  In the evolutionary tree of Americana, Williamsburg is an early mammal, right next door to notional remains of the amoeba-like Jamestown. The streets are very wide and the houses have a field instead of a garage, but it's the recognizable ancestor of  Anyville USA. 
The shops and stores might be a bit staged, perhaps; they're pricey, but this is no collection of back-lot facades. Like a buffer between 'modern' Williamsburg and the hallowed historical ground, here's a slightly more modern shopping district that looks like it has been transplanted from Oxfordshire. They sell peanuts and ham and the kind of women's clothes that people who eat peanut and ham can't get into.
Back in the Living Museum bit, this is the cobbler's establishment, full of leather, awls, and glue. And ghost-like inhabitants, everywhere, dressed for comfort.
There's always a bit of a comprehension gap, between the English and American usage of the word 'shop'. in England, we mean a small place where you buy things. A store is something bigger, or else a place where things are stored, not sold. At least in my head.  Looking at these shops - place of manufacture, and point of sale all rolled into one, the meaning suddenly lurches into the realms of reasonableness. Maybe I have been here too long.
 People who've never been here often imply that there's fakery going on in Williamsburg, that it's all been reconstructed in Lego, as if it were Six Flags without the rides. It isn't. It's been tweaked, sure.  You'll find fifes, shoes, soap, mead, wigs, hats, herbs, clocks, and books ... basically lots of single-syllable, historically accurate items for sale. Supposedly, these are the extras that  self-sufficient yeoman farmers splurged on after a successful harvest, on something they couldn't make themselves. Can't help suspecting they came here mostly to litigate, but I can't see how you could turn that into a marketable souvenir.
There's a huge, very tasteful hotel right on the edge of the historical district, and plenty of pubs, sorry 'Inns'.
 Aaah icy drinks. Anachronistic, but a life saver.

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