Saturday, 23 June 2012

Indianapolis: Cars, cream pie... and culture

'Where are you going on holiday this summer then?'
'Oh, right'. [pause] 'Why?'

For the past few months, every time anyone has asked me that question beloved of hairdressers, I've watched their facial expressions change to confusion at my reply and fielded numerous enquiries as to why I'd chosen the Hoosier heartland over... well, anywhere else, really. When Brits go to the USA on holiday, they opt for a long weekend of cocktails and culture in the Big Apple, a fly-drive to Florida or maybe even a multi-stop trip to California's hotspots. But ten days in the midwest? Apparently that's not a particularly common (or even comprehensible) vacation.

Why had I chosen to visit Indianapolis over America's other attractions, or even a European destination? Simple: to see my friend Vicki, who relocated there earlier this year. In addition to visiting her, it seemed like a great opportunity to get to know a city I probably would never have been to otherwise. After all, Indianapolis's pin isn't very prominent on the world tourist map. But as I discovered, it's all the better for it.
The event that puts Indy on the world map

As a city with a population of 830,000, Indy isn't exactly off the beaten track, but nor is it a bustling metropolis playing host to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Well, with the exception of the final week in May, when the city prepares for the main event in its calendar: the Indy 500. Entirely by accident, I'd managed to book a flight arriving the evening before the big race. Keen to capitalize on my lucky booking, we bought tickets for the race. In the week leading up to 'the greatest spectacle in racing', Indy puts on a festival with a range of racing-related events, including vintage car laps and a street parade. Unfortunately I missed out on these activities, but the atmosphere on race day itself made up for it. As the biggest one-day spectator sport event in the world, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (to use its official title) draws vistors from all over the globe, including two unsuspecting girls from the north west of England. Put simply, it was overwhelming: foot and four-wheel traffic swarmed towards the Speedway, loaded down with refreshments to last through a long day in the blazing sun.

Ask a Brit for their impression of America, and the word 'big' will crop up somewhere: big country, big roads, big portions. The scale of the Indy 500 definitely fell into this category. In the build-up to the race, more than a degree of patriotism was on show, with renditions of 'America the Beautiful' and the national anthem accompanied by much heart-clutching and hat removing. It certainly wasn't something you'd see in Britain, but the level of evident national pride was quite humbling. When the race finally began, we sat back and watched the 33 cars tear around the track for 3 hours. As clueless individuals whose knowledge came from a quick run-down from Vicki's long-time Indy resident cousin and a few facts gleaned from the official programme, we found our interest came and went in waves: lead changes and crashes sparked it, but our picnic diverted it. The final few laps were undeniably gripping though, with a crash and a last-minute lead change signalling victory for Scottish driver Dario Franchitti. For a full account of the race, read my article on The Travel Belles.

I've got my sights set on the 2013 title

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Getting out of town: Woodstock

When you live abroad, starting a blog to document your experiences seems like a great idea. Every day holds the potential for a new experience, sight or snapshot. When I began Tales of a Brit Abroad in 2010, it motivated me to make the most of living in Madrid by exploring the city beyond the tourist hotspots. It also gave me even more of an excuse to escape the capital at weekends and spend time getting to know the rest of Spain.

Since moving back to the UK, it's been understandably difficult to maintain this blog: after all, I'm no longer a Brit abroad. Fortunately, I travel enough to make the occasional post possible. But what all these weekend trips overseas have made me realise is how little I've seen of my own country. Unless I have a friend who lives somewhere, chances are I won't have been there. It's embarrassing really; I've probably been to more provinces in Spain than I have English counties. This needs to change: after all, who knows how long I'll be based on this island?

When I was recently offered the chance to visit Woodstock, I accepted gladly. After all, the pretty little Cotswold town is only 8 miles outside of Oxford, my current home. Despite this, I'd only ever driven through Woodstock once, en route to Blenheim Palace on the outskirts. 'A big rock festival was held here in the 60s', my mum announced as we drove through the sleepy streets. My 15-year-old self looked back at her witheringly and said, 'That was in America'. So I knew there wasn't going to be any rock and roll on the agenda for this visit, but I was hoping for some relaxation, good food and a touch of luxury.

A watercolour of Woodstock by local artist Rod Craig

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