50 States - 07/50 - Virginia

10-10-2017

Ah, Virginia! The very name conjures up images of colonists, history, tobacco, revolution and what-not. Like Maryland, it borders D.C and so I've ventured into and out of it quite a few times. Only recently have I visited it for any length of time. I figure it's probably time to write it up.

coast

The first time I visited it properly, my wife and I were wondering what to do on President's Day. Apparently the thing to do is either buy a car, or go to the parade in the town of Alexandria. This place is on the metro system for DC, so it's easy to get to. The town itself is very twee, with small buildings in the classical American style - slatted sides, raised a little from the ground, terraced and non-terraced town houses. Flags fly proudly from each painted wall - all very patriotic in that American fashion.

The parade itself is also very All American, with re-enactors firing a musket volley at one point. The mayor, the head of the police, fire-brigade and even some real-estate person have their cars decked out with signs and entourage as they parade through the town. No parade is complete without the obligatory singing of national anthem. It's here where the crowd splits in two - these who listen and these who take off their hats, stand up tall and put their hands on their hearts. This was my first glimpse of that kind of patriotism in the flesh.

statue

Nova-labs, the makerspace I mentioned in a previous blog post is based in Virginia, right at the end of the metro-line, in a placed called Reston, which is apparently, very well to-do. Not sure why? The area strikes me as very green, with many trees, but high humidity and nothing but freeways, concrete block buildings and little else.

The Shenandoah National Park lies partly in Virginia and is a lovely place to visit. Like all national parks, it's accessible by road. The views are quite impressive and there is plenty to see. You get a better sense of Virginia overall. Very green and full of plant life, with rolling hills and forests, but also very humid and very sunny. It is, of course, the beginning of Autumn so I've no idea what Winter will be like but right now, it rivals England for it's green, rolling hills.

When you apply for greencard, you need to have your biometrics taken. I had to drive out to another, nondescript concrete box to have fingerprints taken. There are many such agencies and the like in Virginia. I drove through that all-too-familiar low-lying, concrete box, wide road, suburbia. You know the kind; where no-one walks and where every building has so much land, it doesn't know what to do with it, save build a bigger carpark. Many American towns are like this as you get outside the downtown area.

yorktown

The longest trip I spent in Virginia was a road trip over a weekend, visiting Williamsburg, Yorktown, Jamestown Settlement, Richmond and Charlottesville (yes, that Charlottesville). The area around Williamsburg is known as the 'Historic Triangle' and it's here where the history really steps up a notch. A lot happened here, including the surrender of the British in the Revolutionary War, some of the earliest settlements and colonies, the vanished colony of Roanoake and much more. There are plenty of monuments, museums and the like. It's a little spoilt by the inevitable American Cheese of it all - a little too much Disneyland in places. Nevertheless, the museums are pretty good. I felt a little like an interloper - a Brit at Yorktown after all these years.

But of course, Virginia has been right at the forefront of the news recently. The terrible incident at Charlottesville still resonates in people's minds, and will for quite a while yet. When I visited the town, it struck me as quite a lovely little college town. Not quite sleepy but a nice place to be. It's no wonder it was targeted by white supremacists. When I was there, the statue of Robert E Lee was covered in a black plastic tarpauline. The lady who died in the attacks is remembered by wreathes and writings at the spot where she was killed. It's hard to believe that such a thing would happen in a small town like this.

The thing is though, Virginia is a southern state. Looking at it on a map, this doesn't make a lot of sense. It's really in the middle if you are looking at the centre of mass of the contiguous US. But at the time of the civil war, there weren't as many states as there are now. DC was built where it's built (in a swamp!) because it sits right between the north and the south - a purely political move. Much of the fighting took place in Virginia - Robert E Lee himself took up the office of commander of the southern armies, allegedly, to protect his home state of Virginia. Virginia, I think, is trying to come to terms with it's history - lets be honest, it's involvement in slavery.

statues

Virginia is most definitely a southern state when it comes to it's food. Shellfish is big here, and the starters are often as big as the main course! You get plenty of food for your dollar here, so make sure you have a hungry belly. Fried oysters, many different kinds of whiskey and fish, grits and hearty vegetables. It's all very filling and you'll probably put on a bit of weight but it's good to see.

Driving around Richmond and the other towns, it strikes me that Virginia is very, well, Ur-American in some way. I can't quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it's the combination of the history and the general low-key feel of the place. I'm sure that there are some bigger cities that perhaps have their own unique flavour, but the places we saw were quite small. The natural areas of Virginia are probably my favourite - that is, as long as you can stand the climate!