Image: Carike de Jager

We hadn’t planned on being around for the long holiday season in the US, but when I was invited to spend four months writing in a beautiful building in North Carolina, I allowed myself to believe that the “North” in the name meant it wouldn’t be Strange Fruit territory.

We renounced loadshedding and the blustery Cape winter and alighted from our plane a day later to find ourselves inside a Southern tumble-dryer. The heat made everyone party to some common joke, with the locals only mildly inconvenienced by living in a furnace. Even though autumn was promised and spoken of with great fondness, there seemed little sign of it, initially. The trees were steadfastly green, and the sun shone obstinately until someone turned it off at 9pm.

There is something profoundly escapist about being on the other side of the world. Everyone you know is asleep while you’re awake, and awake while you’re asleep, so your phone rarely rings. You know you’re leaving at some point, so you’re free to gawk at the oversized bakkies, free to wonder what grits are and whether barbecue is an object, a place or a concept (all three, often at once, as it turns out). You have to be from elsewhere to properly grasp the outsized scale of everything in the US, particularly in the South. It rewards all the banal inconvenience of long-haul travel by being so profoundly different from what we know. And yet, while it is different, it is easy to slip into.

The US is a land whose conventions take up real estate in every other culture, so you recognise everything without ever having seen it before. That’s a Five Guys. That’s an Escalade. That man is holding an assault rifle as he orders his venti caffé latte (with almond milk) in Starbucks. The latter half of the year is a time of overlapping celebrations, and so it quickly begins to feel as though we’re drifting from one party to another. Homecoming, with its swing bands on green lawns and its endless festivities, segues into college football season, which is celebrated with unusual fervour by people of all ages. There is also softball, a game that nobody seems able to explain satisfactorily, and college basketball, whose participants are all unfathomably tall. There is Halloween, where we quickly learn that if you walk around on “trick-or-treat” night without a child by your side, you look like a would-be kidnapper.

The seasons change like the reels of those old View Master toys. One day it is interminably humid, and the next, the leaves are golden and everyone is breaking out the pumpkin-spiced everything. We’re in a campus neighbourhood where people live in large timber-frame houses that look as historically significant as they are, with rainbow flags and pro-Ukraine posters and “Thank You, Dr Fauci” signs on their lawns. Voices on the radio (the radio stations sound, uncannily, exactly like they always do in the movies) tell us that we’re in the fastest-growing county for young, upwardly mobile types. Big Tech is moving in. There is much talk of it being the Southern Silicon Valley. Teslas are everywhere. “This is a great place to live,” we’re told time and again. “Everything is happening here.”

The lesson of our plotless holiday is that defamiliarisation is the best thing that can happen to you

It certainly is. Hurricane Ian wanders in from the coast and we are faced with having to stock up on “emergency provisions”, a vague category which, to judge from the empty shelves, means large bags of crisps and bulk bottles of Coca-Cola. Everyone we know seems inclined to treat the matter very calmy, so we follow their lead and go to dinner and watch massive branches plunge from the sky. It all seems distinctly uncanny, evoking a sense of the disorder running just beneath the calm surface. All the great old oaks and elms and firs are in their terminal stages, and the damp, yellowing leaves form piles that harbour upsettingly unpredictable spiders.

In traffic one afternoon, an impressive apparition stands preparing to cross the street in a robe straight out of The Seventh Seal. As I watch, he strides across the road and disappears from view. Nobody pays him much attention. Phones occasionally screech a heartfailure-inducing warning of bad weather or stolen children, both invariably false alarms. One day, the phone doesn’t screech, and we get caught in a diluvial downpour that feels like the end of the world. In the grocery stores, the Halloween-themed treats vanish and their place is taken by turkeys and tofurkeys (yes), which in turn are just as mysteriously replaced by Christmas trees and Bing Crosby music, as though some secret sign has been given. We drive down to see a plant where they assemble BMW SUVs. The plant is modern and newly built, and it could be anywhere in the world. And yet the thing that stays with us is how often the workers seem to be adjusting or fitting or checking things with rubber mallets. It seems like a metaphor. We wander past houses where Confederate flags swing limply in the breeze, and we find a Black-owned food truck selling vegan soul food, and the close contrast of these things doesn’t seem at all strange.

On the way back, we’re speculating on whether we would want to drive across this great land, like everyone thinks they do, when we spot a blue-and-yellow flash in the trees. Without thinking twice, we dive down the offramp and a few short minutes later we are standing before a majestic quasi-Swedish warehouse that sells flatpack living. We wander around for two hours, speculating on whether a chair too closely resembles the Arne Jacobsen it’s clearly parroting. Getting lost in an Ikea is probably the most satisfying tourist activity of the whole trip. It’s tourism in a nutshell, complete with strange names, fake snow, intriguing food and drink (the vegan meatballs are better than the er, meat meatballs), and the feeling that you are somewhere utterly strange and utterly serene.

It seems to sum up the otherworldly nature of a place that draws the rest of the world into its powerful orbit. The culture of digital knowledge fostered by social media and the internet at large has created the illusion that all places are digestibly easy to understand. The US is hardly the land of the strange, but even it retains a power to surprise and confound that is oddly compelling. The lesson of our plotless holiday is that defamiliarisation is the best thing that can happen to you. You don’t need to go as far as we did. Pick somewhere you’ve tended to dismiss and go there with different eyes. You may surprise yourself

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