Halfway There…And I Can Already Feel the ‘Tucson Blues’

It dawned on me earlier that I was already half way through my Tucson adventure…and it actually made me a little sad.

If I’m being completely honest, before my year abroad started I was mostly looking forward to the Australian semester. I’d been to the States a few times before, would be far away from my boyfriend, and I just didn’t expect to enjoy it as much. To me, Sydney was where the fun was going to happen, and where I’d truly experience my ‘year abroad’. Whilst this still may be the case, I will definitely be departing Tucson with a heavy heart.

This small city in the middle of the desert hasn’t failed to surprise me so far. Whilst statistically, it may not look like the most appealing place to spend 4 months – I was told by a taxi driver yesterday that Tucson was one of the top 10 poverty stricken cities in the U.S. – it’s small quirks and ‘hipster’ vibe make it an ideal student area. Plus…it’s a lot cheaper than San Fran!

Although the university area is a great example of the popular Greek life, and a mecca for any Starbucks/Chipotle/Urban Outfitters lovers, there is a lot more to the city than just University Blvd.

Venture down 4th Avenue and you’ll be greeted with an array of unique shops, individually owned Mexican restaurants, and bars. It’s a great place to walk down any time of the day, with always something new to discover for a tourist such as myself. Further along and you reach the historic downtown district. I walked around this area one evening, and was amazed to find how ‘un-American’ it felt. Here is where you truly feel Tucson’s Mexican influences. The houses resemble small Spanish villas, again many Mexican restaurants, and some beautiful graffiti artwork. It contrasts greatly from the capitalist environment just a 20 minute walk away.

As well as the differing districts of Tucson, another thing I will be sad to say goodbye to are the abundance of things there are to do here. Whilst we may not be London, L.A. or New York, I’m yet to find myself being bored here. Facebook is always suggesting a free food festival, fashion show, art show, film festival, book signing – you name it, and Tucson have hosted it. I’ve been to Tucson Fashion Week, Tucson Greek Festival, and Tucson Meet Yourself, to name but a few of the events hosted in the past two months. These are also all events I would never have discovered in England (or they would be ridiculously expensive!). If that isn’t quite enough for you, Tucson is also within easy reach of many of Arizona’s best attractions. The Grand Canyon, obviously, but also places like Tombstone, Nogales (in Mexico), many state parks, Apache Lake, and of course Phoenix.

I’m so relieved (and thanking my former self) that I picked U of A as my first choice, as otherwise I don’t think I would have ever discovered just how brilliant and unique Tucson is. I’m also glad that I’ve (so far) been proved wrong about how I thought my experience would go here. I’m loving every minute of it, have met some amazing people, and am actually kind of dreading that long journey home…back to the cold!

Weekends in Arizona: The Kartchner Caverns & Tombstone

The more time I spend here, the more I’m learning about the diversity of Arizona and just how much there is to do here. As I’m only here for a semester, I’m trying to fit as much of this fascinating state in as I can, so I can be sure that I truly experienced the real Arizona.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Last weekend I got a taste of two of the many faces of Arizona. Tombstone portrays perfectly what life was like in the Wild West, being one of the best preserved western towns in the nation. On the other side, we had the Kartchner Caverns, displaying just a snippet of Arizona’s natural beauty with its famous limestone caves. Both these destinations are also just a little outside from Tucson, in the southeast of the state. We hired a car for relatively cheap (only $14 each) and headed out last Saturday, to see what all of the fuss was about.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

First stop was the Kartchner Caverns. In order preserve its natural beauty, visitors are restricted from bringing anything into the caves. This unfortunately means no pictures (!), but does also mean that you’ll have to visit in order to gain even a glimpse of this fascinating area. The caves were made a national park in the 90’s, and before that were kept relatively secret, being known only to a select few. Thankfully, nearly everyone can now enjoy the caves, and they still remain unspoiled. The delicate limestone formations are the reason behind these strict regulations. Although these can be a slight nuisance, it does mean that you can fully appreciate your surroundings without distractions, such as taking photos or using your phone. The caves are also eerily quiet and dimly lit, again for protection. However, this adds to the ambience of the place, and makes you feel almost as if YOU are the first discovers. We were all amazed at the power dripping water can have. It was this simple, natural act of water seeping through the hills and dripping, that over time formed some spectacular formations. The main attraction, Kubla Kahn, stands taller than a 5-storey building! When the water drips it leaves sediments that gradually build and form natural works of art. You still notice the moisture even today, it being a living cave. The rocks are shiny and slippery, and the air has a humidity that you’ll fail to find anywhere else in this arid region. To enter the caves, you have to go on one of their tours. These are relatively inexpensive at $23, and last for around an hour. You also get a lot of information from the park ranger giving the tour – definitely worth the price!

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Next, we drove the 30 minutes (ish) to Tombstone. Some of you may have already heard of Tombstone; it is one of the more famous Wild West towns in North America, and is the site of many iconic gun-fights. In order to preserve this rich culture, most of major buildings are listed, meaning that few alterations can be made. This is perfect for visitors like us, as it means we get a glimpse into what life back then looked like. Most of the inhabitants/workers also play on their Western heritage too, donning cowboy attire and thick accents. Every effort is gone to, in order to transport you back to the Wild West of Tombstone. We spent a few hours wondering around admiring the architecture, stopped off for lunch at the famous Big Nose Kate’s Saloon (another listed building), and then paid $6 for a fake gun-fight, which also told of the history of Tombstone. Whilst some may argue that the town accommodates too much for its tourists, exaggerating certain aspects of the old lifestyle for example, I would respond that it is all just a bit of fun not to be taken too seriously. Yes, it is clear that some parts of the town and people have been fabricated for tourist amusement. However, this does not take away from the uniqueness of Tombstone, which you unfortunately cannot find in many places in the U.S. today. The town is relaxed, homely, and welcoming, and definitely makes for an enjoyable day out.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

On our way out of Tombstone and back towards Tucson, we stopped at the famous Boot-Hill Graveyard. It is a graveyard for people that mainly died in the late 1800’s in Tombstone. Because of the time period, many of the graves had engravings which we wouldn’t see today. For example, a lot were unnamed. Others had details of the horrific ways they died, such as lynching, suicide, or murder. The graves that stood out for me, were the ones reading ‘one Chinese’ or ‘two Chinese’. We definitely wouldn’t get that kind of disrespectful labelling in a modern day graveyard!

KODAK Digital Still Camera

My visit to two of Arizona’s most popular sites, definitely gave me a glimpse into how diverse the state can be. Arizona is typically known for its desert region, and of course the Grand Canyon. However, I am learning that there is so much more to it than that. The natural wonders show the further beauty of the area, whilst the diverse towns display a piece of history vital to the identity not only of Arizona, but the whole of U.S.A. I can’t wait to further explore the state, and find out what else it has to offer me!

Understanding America and its European Roots

Before coming to America, I had never seen so many people so keen to show off their European heritage. Sure, people from Europe are happy about where they come from, in a general sense, but I’ve never heard it said with such pride. This is also despite the fact that a lot of American who state this, have never been to Europe themselves.

Here, being ‘European’ seems to mean something very different, and people are quick to tell you where their ancestors come from. Their grandparents nationality becomes their own, even though they are American citizens, have been raised in America, and sometimes have never visited their ‘home’ country. Being from Europe, this is baffling for me, as I’m sure it is for many other Europeans alike. For example, my grandparents are Spanish and I have a Spanish name, but I do not identify as Spanish…why would I? I cannot speak the language, have never lived there, and know only a limited view of the culture. Yet, if I were American, would be I saying something different?

After living here a couple of months, and being used to hearing the ‘Oh you’re from England? My uncle once visited London’ comments, I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of an average American, and understand their strong grip on European culture.

We all know that the America we see today is a ‘young’ nation, compared to the long stretching history of other places around the world. It made me wonder how I would feel if all my relatives, and all my friends relative were from other countries, and you knew you were still at the beginning of a race of ‘pure’ Americans, whatever that may mean.

Having discussed this with my European friends here in the States, it seems I am not the only one to have noticed the American’s fondness for a European connection. I have many people in my classes that label themselves as German or Polish, when they are clearly not, at least not in the way that I would recognise anyway. This concept of being patriotic and proud to be an American, whilst also boasting of being Polish, European descent is very confusing to an outsider like myself. Whilst I do not know many Polish people, I am sure that if I were to place a person from Poland next to an American saying they is ‘Polish’, the differences in culture would be vast and they’d actually have little in common. The person from Poland may also be offended that a technical American is claiming to be Polish.

Again, however, I do not know how it feels to live in country where so much of the history originates outside of the nation. And I know enough to understand that whilst someone may be an American citizen, this does not mean that they disregard their French or Italian or German ancestry. Perhaps, in a way, most Europeans ‘have it easier’. Most of us are clear in our lineage, and the place we call ‘home’ has always been home for most of our family line. The fact that I have Spanish grandparents is somewhat a rarity in England – in the town where I grew up in, most of the third generations were born there too. However, this is not the case for a lot of Americans. You get a ‘melting pot’ of many different cultures in a lot of big cities, combining their traditions to get the diverse American identity.

In response to those American’s who I meet who tell me that they ‘once visited Manchester’ (which, in case you didn’t know, is many many miles me…in fact I’ve never been) when I reveal my British accent, I’ve come to learn that this is mostly to do with the size of our country. In comparison to the U.S.A., the U.K. is tiny – to an outsider everything must look so close together and in that case why hasn’t everyone visited Buckingham Palace or Stonehenge? Reverse the roles, and we’d probably get a strange look if we told a new Californian acquaintance that we went to New York last year on a city break. Anyone that knows the cities will know that they differ dramatically, so the statement would be somewhat irrelevant.

The European connection is just another one of the many things I am learning about American culture. Being an American Studies student, I would have thought I would have heard something about their views on this before, instead of just about how patriotic the country is. However, I suppose a European professor cannot teach a class of Europeans how Americans feel about their roots here. They have never stood in their shoes and felt what means to be part of a ‘new’ nation and its pioneering attitude, even today. We all need something ‘familiar’ to hold on to, and for many Americans, that ‘familiar’ is also ours – Europe.