West Virginia (Part 1): Inspiration

It’s no small secret I like Anthony Bourdain. He still persists as an inspiration for me in terms of story telling, adventuring and spirit. He was by no means uncontroversial, but he was nonetheless thought-provoking.

One thing he excelled at was attempting to bridge gaps. At times he lambasted people he despised or skewered chefs he viewed as sell-outs. On the other hand, he tried to don others’ moccasins willingly, at least try them on. He demonstrated this by eating foods in unideal scenarios; he also did so in his selection of episodes later on in Parts Unknown.

While undisputedly left-wing, Bourdain did reach out and attempted to talk to “the other.” He shot episodes with pro wrestlers in Pittsburgh, Cajun Mardi Gras goers in rural Louisiana and with blue collar miners in West Virginia.

Certainly there’s bias in creating content on any topic. Perspective will always shine through even with no voiceovers; the mere selection of a moment stems from your particular viewpoint. Viewers heaped criticism on him as he offered a hackneyed version of West Virginia for instance: mining, football and mountain cuisine.

That being said, these three episodes highlight aspects about the given cultures that don’t really reflect the host. That’s what I liked a lot about later episodes; they focused on domestic issues.

With this in mind, I always want to travel to parts of the country new to me. I want to travel there on my own terms, not on a soccer trip or business trip. I want a story to emerge from this places without any lens.

So I planned a trip to West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, I am a Bay Stater through and through. Tom Brady is a deity, life moves quick and time is short, and cod is the best fish in the world. With that in mind, I am full cognizant of this, though I’m malleable when needed.

I like other frames of mind. I love exploring what others think of me. You can be yourself while still being a chameleon. They are not mutually exclusive. You might curse like a sailor with friends and not your grandma. You are changing, without altering your identity; you’re still a good person.

I like to delve into other worlds, no matter how minor the difference. These three states (WV, KY, TN) are very much different from my own, and off I went.

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Casual drive up, up, up a mountain ride

Driving Down

I thoroughly enjoy walking in a neighborhood or driving down a road you’ve traveled down a million times, only to discover something different, either slightly or wildly.

I had played club soccer since I was a youngster and the eastern seaboard was our main street. I went over the old Tappan Zee bridges no fewer than a billion times. Soaked wooden supports and rusting frame brought about beads of perspiration on my mother’s forehead every time, like clockwork. Similar to much of American infrastructure, its intended life span was fast coming to a close. That old Tappan Zee evokes many a memory for me.

So when I popped Monongahela National Forest into Google Maps, I was happy to see I’d be taking I-287 over a road I’d seen a million times. However, I hadn’t realized they’d already built a modern cable-stayed bridge parallel to the corroded cantilever one. My old route had been modified.

As much as the journey was about something new (West Virginia), I love moments of change, moments where you realize how swift this world moves.

Out of Place

As the green fields and low rolling hills whipped by, the sun began to drop from the zenith that summer day. As much as this trip was about discovery, I also had an important task that afternoon.

Portugal were playing Uruguay in a Round of 16 World Cup game and of course I couldn’t miss it, my grandparents’ legacy forever imprinted on my psyche. A Ronnie Rocket sends shivers up my spine, lifting the European Cup brings tears to my eyes.

I drove as far as I could before 2pm, and found myself in Cumberland, Maryland, in the sliver of the Old Line State that finds itself a twenty minute jog from either Pennsylvania or West Virginia. It’s a spot unlike the Northeast I know, yet not entirely unfamiliar.

I found a pizzeria that looked sure as day to have a TV and walked in. Puccini Restaurant might not send pizza lovers flocking, but if you ever find yourself in Cumberland, MD, pay a favor to your future self and have some of their brick oven delight, dotted with local produce. It’s wonderfully fresh and crisp.

Cumberland is an area where a drawl starts to emerge in the accent. It’s not entirely southern, but it’s certainly not like home. In general, the correlation between the love of the Beautiful Game and southern accents isn’t super strong in my experience.

This is where my past experiences were first turned on their head.

I enter the pizzeria, cuffed khakis, boat shoes, Ronaldo away jersey. A confused waitress stares as the place is clearly off-peak. I ask for a TV and she ushers me upstairs. Baseball is on the bar TV, and I hesitantly ask if the Portugal-Uruguay game can go on. I give her an out: “you don’t have to if you don’t want.”

Burly dudes in ripped jean shorts and motorcycle t-shirts in rural America are staring at the greased hair of Latino and Iberian men in Russia. It’s like a 7-year-old looking at a tampon; they have only the vaguest idea what’s going on.

The game progresses, with Suarez rolling on the ground and Ronaldo…also rolling on the ground. Par for the course, but this links is unknown to Marylanders. Murmurs grow in the restaurant.

What is this? Soccer is such a weird sport? Why are they diving?

I was uncomfortable like a puppy near kangaroos.

And then they began to see my reactions to the games. I couldn’t help squirm in my seat as a shot snapped by the post, or the Selecção ceded possession needlessly for the umpteenth time. And people took notice.

Hushed voices. He’s watching the game. I think he actually cares.

And the folks grew into it. No longer turning their backs to the TV, they almost cared that I care.

A group turned around and told me how one of their students had a 7 shaved in his head because of “this Ronaldo guy.” They wished me luck.

Baby Steps

The point of the story isn’t that I turned a bar in Cumberland, MD into Portugal supporters. That would be an outlandish twist of narrative a D-list screenwriter wouldn’t attempt. At the end, they didn’t so much as blink an eye when Uruguay won. The point is embracing of “the other.”

I clearly was an outsider. I didn’t belong there. I sounded different. I looked different, with my dress and scrawny ass. I liked a different sport. But they embraced me in a tiny way, and that’s what’s important.

In today’s polarized America, we need hugs. We need mending. And if it’s something as small as a pizzeria in rural Maryland not hating Portuguese play soccer with slicked back manes while some northerner changed the TV from the baseball game, I think it’s important.

Connection to Bourdain

I don’t think you need to change who you are. I can love Ronnie, love soccer. I can be different, and yet still be respectful. I can disagree with what “the other” says or believes and still treat them as human. In his later episodes, he reached out ever so slightly in these places, and that little bit is important.

I understand, Cumberland is not the most southern place, but it certainly is Trump Country. They aren’t as different from me as, say, rural Alabama or mountainous Wyoming. But this small moment was important to me at a time when it’s easy to look at someone different and judge, typecast or label.

My lesson from this first moment on the road trip, when I hadn’t even yet gotten to West Virginia, was what my mantra has always been: keep an open mind.
Let me know what you think in the comments below! You agree with me points? Am I missing something important?

This is a multi-part series on a road trip to West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Check out the other pieces here.

Like what you’re reading on the US? Check out some other related articles in: The US Chronicles!!

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