An Aussie visitor’s first impressions of Chapel Hill

September 12, 2013 

David McCubbin


Everyone tells me Chapel Hill is not like the rest of America. They’re quite insistent upon that.

I shrug my shoulders and gesture, “Well I hear what you’re saying,” but I’m still profoundly impressed.

Perhaps it was crystallized for me when we dropped 2-year-old Jeremy off at daycare. He rushed up to one of his carers, a middle-aged bloke named Larry, grabbed him around the leg, both arms bear hugging his thigh, face turned adoringly upward.

My mind did a quick register, “A man in a child-care facility?”

But Chapel Hill is like that, a daily exploration of contradictions. And as I’ve been here now for almost three days I’m worried that this assault upon my deep inlay of irreconcilable prejudice, the fundamentalist within, is leaving me stripped bare. If it goes on like this, I shall, like a character from a Stephen Spender novel, cease to exist in anything approximating my cynical former self.

My arrival at the airport triggered this fear, this crisis of identity. I was astounded that the fee for parking was a paltry one dollar. Tullamarine, Melbourne’s International Airport and “Gateway” seems complicit in making air travel, and arrival the worst of experiences, and parking is a gouging $14 for the first hour.

During the following day I became aware of other imponderables. Free local bus travel, and outrageously extensive public bicycle and walking path system, free swimming pools, and suburban subdivisions (with a delightfully observed absence of ersatz public art), in which so much more than the most meager and useless adjuncts to drainage are converted to public open space. At the cafe I’m sitting in the wi-fi is free, and car drivers are courteous to a fault.

I thought that this was meant to be the land of the selfish capitalist, the land where private is all, public is to be abhorred. Yet the absence of speed cameras, booze buses, police cars, boundary fences surrounding every house, the absence of rubbish, cigarette packets, beer cans, and McDonald’s wrappers as decoration of the roadside, (all this in the land of McDonald’s), and roads with cycle routes clearly marked speaks of a responsible, responsive and respectful society.

The further I went the more the contradictions rain down upon me. I am losing my sense of definition; black is not necessarily black and white has gone fuzzy and in between. Beyond this, the general “friendliness” of the locals is deeply unsettling. To compound the issue, though I know there is a race divide, was my experience at the local cafe in which Latin American, African Americans and European Americans of all ages sat together savoring ice cream.

In a day or two I’m off to see another America, possibly more correctly identified as a “real America,” but for this moment, I must content myself with an impression that this part of North Carolina shares more with (my imagined) Nordic socialism of Sweden than the aggressive, single-minded selfish capitalism I’ve accepted as the norm. Chapel Hill counters the preconceived stereotypical Australian view I had of this country.

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