Talking turkey

Cambria, California

As Putin ramps up airspace aggression over Turkey, Americans are today busy devouring the nation’s birdlike namesake.

From Maine to Seattle, family and friends are preparing for a famous meal of roast turkey with all the trimmings, to pay reflective homage to all they are grateful for and, in part, honour the first European American settlers who initiated this tradition almost 400 years ago.

According to Benjamin Franklin, the pilgrims sought to reflect on the joyful circumstance that “their seas and rivers were full of fish, the air sweet, the climate healthy, and above all, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty, civil and religious”.

To this day, thanksgiving remains not only an important American holiday, but a social convention. Veterans are routinely thanked for their service by strangers and gratuities over and above the stated price of a meal are essentially mandatory.

It is appropriate and respectful that, at least once a year, the citizens of the world’s most prosperous nation reflect on just how good they have it. The Mayflower’s passengers had much to be thankful for beyond their safe journey. They had made their home in a New World brimming with natural beauty and economic opportunity. Equally, despite growing disharmony in many cities and widening income disparity, the nation’s modern-day inhabitants enjoy freedoms arguably unrivalled worldwide, with greater capacity for social mobility than anywhere else.

However, it is also appropriate that on Thanksgiving we pause to consider the experience of those Americans who inhabited the land before the settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

The Native American population north of the Rio Grande is thought to have numbered at least five million prior to settlement, with an untold number of tribes and nations – 562 of which are formally recognised by the US federal government today.

Just under one hundred of these original inhabitants were said to have taken part in the legendary breaking of the bread at Plymouth. In fact, some historians suggest that Thanksgiving itself is a long-standing tradition of the Wampanoag people that was adopted and adapted by the pilgrims.

Despite having been granted native title more than a century before Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans have hardly fared much better.

I recently travelled through the rugged and beautiful landscape of the Navajo people on the Utah-Arizona border. On the one hand, the local indigenous population here seems to have maintained strong bonds to country, probably because they were either never forcibly removed or because these ‘stolen generations’ are more distant than those of Australia. Traditional artwork and language is commonplace and strong cultural pride is evident.

But on the other, standards of living seem scarcely higher than in many remote Aboriginal communities in Australia’s outback, and certainly – despite the occasional Denver Broncos jersey or Phoenix Suns snapback – these communities seem vastly removed from the mainstream modern American dialogue.

It’s not a competition. Both countries have chequered pasts (to put it mildly) when it comes to governing their indigenous populations and delivering harmony, even in comparison to New World nations with similar histories like New Zealand and Canada. Occurrences of forcible destruction of family and tribal units – let alone acts of genocide – should sober even the most ardent nationalist.

That doesn’t mean Americans should be ashamed of their forefathers’ legacy or the values of freedom and liberty they bestowed. Settlement and nation-building did not come easy for the early pilgrims or for the generations of migrants that followed.

But when you are biting into that turkey leg today – just as when Aussies toss coins to commemorate the Anzacs or crack a coldie on Australia Day – it is worth sparing a thought for the original inhabitants of our lands, whose cultures can provide enduring wisdom, meaning and identity for us all, if we take a minute to give thanks.

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Published on 26 November 2015

Mile High

Denver, Colorado

Due to its approximate altitude, Denver has always been known as the Mile High City. It now has another reason for the moniker.

In November 2012, the citizens of Colorado approved Amendment 64, allowing the cultivation of marijuana for personal recreational use. In May 2013, the state went a step further, as Governor John Hickenlooper Jr signed a number of bills which would legalise commercial growing operations and result in the proliferation of Amsterdam-style cannabis dispensaries.

Across Colorado, shops bearing luminescent green crosses have popped up on street corners, while its economy has seen the emergence of a new breed of so-called ganjapreneurs and opened itself to a new tourism not determined by snow inches. 

And so it was incumbent upon me, the professional that I am, to turn up and investigate the burgeoning weed economy, strictly for journalistic purposes of course.

Flying into Denver – which, by the way, is underrated for its natural beauty, with skyscrapers stark against the Rockies rising from a brown, almost lunar landscape – I began my research immediately, knocking on the door of a commercial grow facility called Medicine Man.

I joined a delegation of Mexican public broadcasters and a motley crew of tourists to witness hydroponically grown, 100 per cent legal marijuana crops in various stages of harvest. A number of the tour participants looked a little overwhelmed as they – red-eyed and dry-mouthed – attempted to keep up with the biology lecture.

We were then herded compliantly onto a smokey bus and taken to various weed-related businesses across the city, including bong-making demonstrations by some very talented glassblowers and various dispensaries, presumably with the intention of us stimulating this new revenue source.

The 30 or so bus patrons could best be described as American stoners of varying shades, shapes and sizes, from dreadlocked Floridians to goateed hillbillies to baby-faced skater kids barely out of high school.

But among them, one stood out: Mark, a bearded South Australian baby boomer on a “study tour” to see if a similar scenario could be implemented back home.

A longstanding advocate of drug reform in Australia, my new friend was a member of the appropriately-named Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) party. Outside of its enclave in the Byron hinterland, the party has struggled to gain much traction in mainstream state or federal politics, but it does play a role influencing the party positions of the Greens, and, with less success, Labor’s Left.

“You know, the problem with the Left is that it is so fragmented and always fighting with itself,” he said. I knew.

Mark will likely paint a rosy view of the Coloradan cannabis game when he presents his findings to his HEMP party comrades, aided by the slightly one-sided polemics of our tour guides.

On face value there seem to be few downsides of the change in law. Cost savings are made through removing the need to criminally prosecute – and possibly even jail – weed offenders, while the rise of ganjapreneurs is seemingly a positive for the state’s finances and job participation numbers.

However, critics have pointed to dramatic rises in homelessness – with some publications pitting the figure at as high as 300% – as overzealous tourists find themselves sleeping rough after alleged marijuana binges.

Walking the streets of Denver, there is no doubt there is a relatively high number of visible vagrants and beggars. Though, in fairness, it was not possible – from a midnight meander anyway – to determine whether the change in drug laws is causally related, or whether Denver (like a number of other western cities like San Francisco) has just historically been home to a lot of bums.

An Ethiopian-born cabbie with obvious disdain for the cannabis economy blames the “devil’s herb”, while all of those involved in the weed businesses tell me the rise in homelessness is merely a natural extension of rises in general population.

Regardless of the pros and cons of legalisation, on a basic political level, Colorado’s experimentation is in some ways a sign of the Constitution working as it was meant to. Recreational cannabis use remains illegal under federal statute. The Coloradan people, across the political spectrum, seem proud of the defiance, and no doubt the founding fathers would approve.

Like the Netherlands, Colorado’s new laws will likely polarise and mystify outsiders – some inspired and others fraught about the crumbling of the moral fabric – while creating ironically less life-altering change for locals apart from creating a few new revenue sources and taking drug deals off the street.

This is an issue that will continue to rear its head. And if South Australia should attempt a ‘Colorado model’ anytime soon, remember, you heard it here first.

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100 per cent legal cannabis being harvested at a grow operation in Denver, CO.

Published on 22 November 2015

Two hats

New Braunfels, Texas

As the world health authorities issue propaganda comparing sausages to tobacco, the people of New Braunfels have seemingly missed the memo. Each year since 1963 the inhabitants of this rural community in Texas’s central Hill Country have gathered to celebrate their German heritage in the only appropriate fashion – over-consumption of beer and processed meats.

Wurstfest, as it is known, is a big deal ‘round these parts. The organising committee meets year round and is a who’s who of local community leaders while the beer halls and dance floors are permanent structures, the walls adorned with generations of moustachioed revellers, and award-winning festival fare – such as the especially delicious ‘pork chop on a stick’, a casual snack that in some parts of the world would be sufficient to feed a family of five.

But while it not uncommon elsewhere for ethnic communities to congregate and celebrate their culture, what is interesting about this particular celebration is that Germans first began settling the region in the early 19th century and many of the locals are sixth or seventh generation.

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Despite being decked out in full garb, lederhosen and all, most locals have never set foot in the motherland nor do they speak the language anymore. My lame attempts at ‘dankeschon’ and ‘gutentag’ were met more often with suspicion or dumbfoundery than fluent response. Many surnames have been Anglicised, although a notable exception was a Mr Goebell, who anxiously (and understandably) informed me it is pronounced ‘Gable’. And yet, many know the words belted out by the polka and oom-pa-pa bands, and are expert in the various strands of wurst. 

This is a very American multiculturalism. The people of central Texas are among the nation’s most patriotic and yet they have little trouble embracing the culture of their forebears, despite hundreds of years of assimilation.

The phenomenon is not endemic to Texas. In New York City and Boston, four leaf clovers are proudly displayed by those whose Irish heritage is a distant memory, while in much of the northern Midwest, Scandinavian flags and names are ubiquitous in the most American of small towns.

When I lived in London I remember locals arrogantly ridiculing this penchant to embrace distant ties, as if it smacked of some sort of desperation to be connected to something older and more sophisticated.

But more accurately I think this ease of many American migrants (both old and new) to wear two hats is an example of multiculturalism done right.

In Europe by contrast – and to a lesser extent, Australia – there has been a tendency to allow or encourage migrants to practice their homeland culture uninterrupted, fearful that forced assimilation may be an imperialist identity theft.

Hence, we see Sydney’s Lakemba and the outskirts of Paris, for example, where many migrants feel disenfranchised or even openly hostile towards their new home and what they see as an inferior culture of moral ambiguity.

Conversely, some migrants may feel compelled to abandon their past and embrace solely the tenets and symbols of their adoptive locale, as we see with a large percentage of Anglo-Australians who could not tell you which part of the British Isles their name and family comes from, and frankly, could not care less.

For me personally I have often felt growing up in Australia that there is an implicit pressure to choose. As a teenager, critical of the Establishment and nursing a still-forming identity, this often meant embracing the culture of my grandparents at the expense of the culture of my birth. In more recent years, and as the result of extensive (and expensive) travel, I have found more comfort in an Australian patriotism that – while subtle compared to others – is real and valid.

Becoming an Australian or American or Frenchman should not mean divorcing yourself from the heritage of your past. It is natural and genuine that people find solace in the history that has impacted their present, even implicitly.

But at the same time it should require some form of adherence to the norms and cultures of the adoptive home. Multiculturalism devoid of any assimilation or integration does not breed harmony at all, but disenfranchisement, identity crisis and, all too often, violence.

We only need to take a cursory look at European news headlines to know that.

America is no paradise when it comes to social and cultural cohesion, and immigration presents challenges everywhere, but its attempts at multiculturalism – even here in the most nationalistic enclaves – has proven more harmonious than others.

It ain’t perfect, but it’s worthy of drinking to. Prost!

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Published on 16 November

A grounded plane

Houston, Texas

When Jarryd Hayne first announced he was calling it quits at the peak of his rugby league career and following his boyhood dream of playing NFL, the scoffs and laughs of the assembled press pack were audible.

That smug, pontificating ass Peter Fitzsimons for example decried that all the “Nelly Naysayers” were “dead right” to doubt Hayne’s ability to make it in the pros, anticipating that “a year from now he’ll be back in league, or more likely French rugby”.

By contrast, the less hard-nosed and pessimistic American sports press were more than happy to get onboard the Hayne Plane. In those early weeks after the announcement the amount of coverage given to Hayne by the US football pundits was truly mind-blowing, especially given he is a complete unknown here and was competing for airtime against big name new drafts from the wildly popular college competition.

Sitting gleefully in sports bars around the country during pre-season – buffalo sauce appropriately adorning my lips and cheeks – I would be stopped in my tracks by surreal on-screen montages of Hayne scoring tries in his Parra and Blues jerseys while a fast-talking ESPN host waxed lyrical about his athletic prowess.

On one occasion, I even saw a map of New South Wales appear on the screen with a dot explaining the geographical location of Minto.

Partly the reaction from the US press may have something to do with the generally more perky and upbeat temperament of both America’s citizens and its journalists.

Hayne has also been a beneficiary of the general trendiness of all things Australian – as any young Aussie male who has ever been to an American nightclub can attest to. Rugby is becoming more popular here by the day and Hayne was well-embraced by the legions of Hugh Jackman and Curtis Stone fans.

But mostly I think the US press just thought – as did most Australian sports fans – that this was a genuinely great story. They respected his decision to follow his dream and turn down complacency despite the risk that any subsequent failure would be so public. 

When he officially made the cut and ran out in his San Francisco 49ers colours for the first time – with his jersey already a top international seller – I was overjoyed that his dream had ostensibly come true, rooting for him hard despite having little love for the Niners.

While I wasn’t there to witness it, judging by my Facebook and Twitter feeds the Australian press eventually came around, with no shortage of congratulatory pieces, including from those that had previously written him off before he even had a pigskin in hand. 

The Hayne Plane bandwagon seemingly knew no bounds. Whenever people heard my accent they would stop me in the street and ask me about Jarryd Hayne or even make the plane sign with their arms. It was a feel-good fairytale, with a positive message that few could resist.

That’s why it was so disheartening to hear the news last week that Hayne’s contract was being waived. With no rival team picking him up, Hayne eventually was signed to the 49ers practice squad, where some less generous commentators prophesied he would  eventually end up.

For my part, I hope Hayne doesn’t regret his decision. Scoring yards in the NFL – often in front of crowds that dwarf even State of Origin or Grand Final attendances in Australia – is nothing to be sneezed at.

He made a tough call, inspired thousands of sports fans in two countries and even managed to get a smile out of the most cynical of sports reporters. He should be immensely proud. 

I hope that NSW Premier Mike Baird is right and the Hayne Plane is “not grounded, merely diverted”.

Because nothing would give me more pleasure than to see more egg on Fitzsimon’s ludicrous red bandanna.

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Published on 4 November 2015