Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Two nations separated by dentistry

Well would you look at that. Barely two weeks after returning from a wedding in Atlanta, I'm back in the land of the free, the land where queuing for an hour to clear immigration is just what makes this great land of theirs so great and so free.

I have come to Chicago, America's 'Second City', "that toddlin' town", as Frank Sinatra eulogised.

It's my first time here, a long-held ambition to seek out where blues music went when it migrated north from the South, discovered amplification and became something which can trace its heritage in the soul, funk, house and hip-hop that came later out of the city. More of this in the days to come.

Chicago is my base camp for another long-held ambition, to drive Route 66 - Chicago to LA - 'the Mother Road', doing the diner'n'motel thing, and seeing the real America. And, no, I won't be doing it on a Harley-Davidson. This is not some mid-life crisis. Simply a trip to embrace the American heartland, a brief series of conjoined snapshots of a country that inspires such journeys like no other.

American culture fascinates me and always has. But the more I've embraced its musical heritage, the more I've wanted to explore the roots of popular music that became the dominant culture of the latter half of the 20th century, that came to Britain in the 1950s and 60s and inspired the British Invasion of bands who brought it all the way back to America. Even now I find it weird to see Americans citing The Beatles and the Stones as the epitome of rock'n'roll when it started here. But then that's what Americans do best: here success is to be cherished, to be hailed, to be encouraged.

It's what divides Britain and America. America is an overwhelmingly positive, can-do place. People seek out opportunity. Britain - and indeed Europe - at times feels like the glass is half-empty, that it is easier to find ten ways to say no to something than the one way to say yes.

Someone asked me the other day why I keep coming back to America when, living in Paris, I have a vast and beautiful country at my disposal, and beyond it countries like Italy, Spain and Greece, the cradles of modern civilisation, each with breathtaking vistas, real history by the bucketload, and the beaches of the Mediterranean. The answer - which took time to form - was that, yes, I could take holidays in those places and I do. But there are times when I need to breathe in America again to feel good. It's a drug, but a good one.

It truly is the land of possibility. Even in the depths of economic despair, Americans plough on. They work hard for their recognition. That "have a nice day!" waitress may be gratingly OTT to the foreign tourist - especially the Brits used to increasingly dismal customer service and can't-be-arsed attitudes back home - but she is part of the glass half full that I love to drink from in this country.

Attitude, then, clearly divides these two country cousins. And language. George Bernard Shaw famously described Britain and America as "two countries separated by a common language", something Eddie Izzard later explored with this forensic comparison:

However, I have only recently come to the conclusion that, if you really want to examine the differences between America and Britain, just ask an American and a Brit to stand next to each other and smile.

Yes, teeth. At risk of pandering to the cliché that all Brits have medievally poor dentistry,  Americans simply have better teeth (with the exception of the country's swolen community of meth-heads and anyone in rural Alabama, apparently).

Whenever I had my photograph taken at the Atlanta wedding, my smile resembled that of a bulldog chewing a wasp. This is because I am British and we don't show off our teeth, especially to Americans, for fear of sparking a panic that The Plague, boils and Victorian syphilis are all back in fashion. My American friends, however, routinely flashed their gnashers like smiling sharks (a concept the Discovery Channel really should look into for its next Shark Week).  You only had to produce a camera and row after row of pristine, pearl-white tombstones would be framed by a smile. Time after time, picture after picture.

If you have any American friends go now to Facebook and look up any group shots of them at weddings and social gatherings. You'd think the entire country was sponsored by Signal.

Dentistry is a part of the American way. Teeth - shining white teeth, perfect choppers for devouring 100% American-reared cows, hot dogs at ball games and shrimp at barbecues - should be included in the long list of American icons.

It is no surprise, then, to discover that the world's first dentistry association was formed in this country, and that the American Dental Association is located right here in Chicago. That's right - and you thought I'd veered off topic...?

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