flave just returned from my first trip to the New World. I was lucky enough to travel with the choir and the big band of a local Catholic school on a music tour to Washington and New York. Without wishing to get all Henry James about it, it was my first time outside Europe, and the United States does feel very different. so new and energised in some ways and almost old fashioned in others.
I found the flight rather a chore. One would imagine that being in the air for eight hours would allow one time to do all sorts of things: sleep, read. write. etc. What I found was that although I was bored and restless I could settle to nothing, though I did say some prayers. There is something about being 39,000ft up in a metal box travelling at 500 miles an hour that does not lend itself to sleep or concentration but sharpens your prayer. On landing in Washington
found a strange dissonance of the familiar and the different. I suppose in all my other experiences of "abroad" the language has been something which immediately proclaims you as foreign. The lack of this barrier, and I suppose so many film and television images seemed to give my visit the quality of recognition rather than discovery. What struck me forcibly was how open and friendly the people are. The coach driver who met us at the airport welcomed us warmly to his city and spoke with great fondness of what he knew of English culture, namely Keeping up Appearances and Are you Being Served?, and suddenly I couldn't help wondering what stereotypes of Americans I may have absorbed from television.
I found Washington a wonderfully wholesome city with wide avenues and beautifully laid out civic spaces. Despite apparently having a very high murder rate, it felt very safe. It is spotlessly clean, and for the first of many occasions in the week I reflected that what I think of as American culture those aspects of it we have imported may be no more truly representative of it than
Hyacinth Bucket is of English culture. In the country that gave us fast food I was surprised to find the streets and public areas are absolutely pristine.
It is impossible to miss the fact that this is a country created by an Enlightenment vision. By the end of the week I found I kept repeating to the boys wryly, -Welcome to the land of the free," when they were aware of another restriction or rule being pointed out to them. It was not that these were unnecessary or wrong I think the signs forbidding eating, drinking and spitting on the subway were marvellous, for example. In fact, I became conscious of how in our own country we have exalted indi vidualism to the point where there is a dearth of civic or national pride. But it seems that here liberty and equality laid are out on grandiose lines like the imposing townscape and that freedom is constructed in a positivist way and therefore has some narrow bits. It was interesting, likewise, to read the inspiring speeches on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial about every man being made equal in God's image and wondering how, in the light of such worthy declarations, black people couldn't sit down on some buses for another 100 years.
We walked to the White House. which struck me as a rather modest place to house the most powerful man in the world. To our delight, as we were walking away Marine One, the presidential helicopter, flew over. We then went to the Mall, the landscaped space south of the White House which has the Capitol at one end and the Lincoln Memorial at the other, and, marking the middle. the towering obelisk of the Washington Memorial reflected in a long pool.
On the Saturday evening the boys sang for Mass in Washington's St Matthew's Cathedral and I concelebrated. This magnifi
cent church was the setting for John F Kennedy's funeral; a marble tablet in the floor in front of the sanctuary commemorates the obsequies of America's only Catholic president.
For the vigil Mass of Sunday the huge church was full. There was what I can only describe as a kind of professionalism about things in the sacristy beforehand. Thirty minutes before Mass the celebrant, a professor from the Catholic University of America, was there checking things with the deacon. There was an MC who briefed me, a robed reader and a group of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion all formally dressed and, as it were, reporting for duty with leather-bound missals. Everyone seemed to be fully trained and confident about their role.
The sermon was excellent: it dealt with all three readings and explained them and linked them to a quotation from Deus Caritas Est. The choir sang beautifully. to the spontaneous applause of the congregatioq as they finished, and then we walked out into a Washington just about to be blanketed under snow.
Would we make it to the National Shrine the next day. let alone New York...?