Living in small town America...
This is part of a series of travel stories, based upon the experiences of me and my wife, on our tour across America. Read more at
Harrisburg – Pennsylvania, PA
As the capitol of Pennsylvania, this quaint little town is situated on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Located within a couple of hours drive from New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh this charming town is perfectly located. Home to many historical landmarks, this city made its mark on American History through the Westward migration, American Civil War and Industrial Revolution. Annually Harrisburg also plays host to the Pennsylvania Farm Show, the largest free indoor agriculture exposition in the United States, as well as the largest outdoor and automotive show of its kind in America. Rated by Forbes as the 2nd best place in America to raise a family, it’s easy to see the city’s attractive lure. On paper at least….
When you look to the horizon and you see the “middle of nowhere” on the skyline, despite claims that you’re actually in the Capital of Pennsylvania, then you know you’re in Harrisburg. Renowned for Underdogs Sports Bar, with their Buffalo wings special, and perhaps its proximity to Hershey, Harrisburg offers very little else. Yet, this was our home away from home for 3 months. Settling into the Marriot hotel, in an adjacent room to Joe and Lindy, the couple created a homely feel to this dud of a town. Nevertheless, small town America has its own personality and we were there to unmask the masquerade.
Neil’s first night in Pennsylvania was spent in Philadelphia where the couple had an apartment. Tired, from packing his life in a box and travelling thousands of kilometres, all in record breaking time, he knew that it won’t take much to damage this weary soul. Chantel pounced on his fragile state by organizing the most legendary “coming to America” party…. EVER! Welcomed by a flock of Auditors and enough tequila to save the entire Mexico from involuntary sobriety, we all packed into a small Philly apartment and wired the sound for a party of note. Deprived of shooter glasses, we used measuring cups to throw the shots and soon realised that our cognitive unit conversions were not “America-ready” yet. This caused double or triple shots being devoured at every turn. Needless to say our batteries burned out pretty quickly and we retired to our first peaceful sleep together across the Atlantic. But parties like these have serious side effects, becoming very apparent as the walking wounded awoke. Lindy couldn’t stand, so step one was a race to the hospital where she was diagnosed with tequila-itis and subsequently her leg was put in a cast. Lindy was dosed like an addict and combined with her inability to master the craft of crutching, we decided the best medicine would be more tequila. This is how we ended up in a strange Mexican pub with brilliant food and peculiar tequila. Subsequently we had our hands full with our waitress trying to sell us tickets to the motor show currently in the city, and Lindy seriously considering purchasing 6 of them (for whom we don’t know?). We then decided the safest bet was to load Lindy and her crutches onto the backseat and make our way to Harrisburg to nurse the aftermaths in our own refuge. Hello America, Neil has arrived…..
With Chantel working from 9 to 9 daily, we became very limited with our weekly activities. So we reserved our pleasurable events for weekend exploration. Therefore throughout the week we maintained a low profile on the merrymaking front, but the weekends we lived it up. Chantel’s days were predictably consumed by unmasking the inaptitude of American auditors. Neil in turn honed his househusband skills, soon mastering the art of laundromatting, coupon grocering and spiceless cooking. Neil was becoming increasingly proud of his ability to spot a bargain in any supermarket, while swiping loyalty cards left, right and centre with a sense of pride normally reserved for Diamond Credit Cards. He also had the uncanny ability to continuously activate the fire alarm each time he attempted to cook. So much so that the front desk didn’t call to find out if he’s OK, but rather to confirm what was on today’s menu. Speaking of which, it was nearly impossible to design, due to spices being a precious currency of its own in America, and thereby an extravagance for budget strained tourists.
Deprived of social interaction, Neil sought out friends in the clichéd Mexican cleaning staff of the Marriot hotel. Sharing jokes, laughing out loud and nodding in agreement, the reciprocal conversations became the highlight of the morning – despite neither party understanding the other. Who said lost in translation is a bad thing. Fortunately for modern-day technology the other highlight came at exactly 11:59 am Harrisburg time. Lunchtime conversations revolved around calling any- and everybody in South Africa (5:59am) who cared to listen. Skype abuse thereafter became written into the terms and conditions of the program. This social deprivation also had its negative effects, with incongruence between Neil’s need to talk and Chantel’s need to not to. Exhausted she came home late and just wanted to bath and sleep before the next 12 hour shift, while Neil had nobody to share his afternoon antics with. He was bubbling to inform someone that he discovered a 5% discount coupon for Budweiser, while watching last night’s episode of American Horror Story. Needless to say these conversations ended up about as mutual as those with the Marriot Mexicans.
One thing we had in abundance though was internet linespeed. Live streaming became the norm throughout the day, thereby enabling Neil to devour countless hours of sport, movies and tv programmes. In the evenings these trends continued and we had a blast catching up on any entertainment program we could think of. Neil was planning the details of our weekend excursions and future roadtrip through America while Chantel was earning the spending money. A match made in heaven….
Our time in Harrisburg also coincided with some fantastic milestones. Chantel passed her CA(SA) exam, our first Valentine’s day as a couple, Lindy’s birthday, Joe’s arrival, Neil’s life changing discovery of Sheetz and Underdogs sports bar. Yes, these were indeed times to savour. But first, let’s get bogged down in the details.
Few moments are as treasured as reaching the epitome of success, especially when countless hours were invested to achieve this. After donating litres of blood and sweat through the years, Chantel reached het crowning glory by receiving the news that she passed her final exams and could now finally christen herself as a CA (SA). Even though the news reached us at 9am in the morning, we were not scared to celebrate in style by clinking a glass of Napa Valley’s best champagne, before Lindy and Chantel had to set-off for work. Nevertheless, we were in high spirits because Joe would soon be joining us out of Africa, Chantel got a few presents and we had an upcoming ski weekend to look forward to. Read more details in the Shawny Mountain chapter….
Our stay in Harrisburg also overlapped with our first shared experience of real snow. As the first flocks fell on our heads we soon realised that this winter wonderland needs to be shared. This is how Chantel and Lindy found their way back to the hotel with an afternoon of leave. We were soon playing in the snow like kindergartens, while the seasoned snow veterans stared at us with looks normally reserved for escaping apes from the zoo. We were awe struck and obviously had our first snowball fight ever, before retiring to our rooms all drenched in frosted marvel.
Some constants were in the making. Movies in America are expensive and the buttery popcorn excessive and overrated. Silver Lining Playbook would be our first movie together in America and even though the movie was good, it was definitely not worth the $65 evening expenditure. Fortunately we discovered a little gem of cinema, which hosted less recent releases (in other words movies currently on circuit in SA) at a very affordable price. The bottomless Coke and popcorn specials enabled us to do movie marathons where we consumed all the “latest” releases.
Our time spent in Harrisburg was dreamlike and mostly all we could imagine small town America would be like and more…. It was our first time living together and despite certain hiccups it was predominantly amazing. We had a heated pool, gym, ice machine and Jacuzzi a few yards away from our room door. We had a mall across the road with a specialty shop for hunting gear and guns. A scary place with an ambiance of a stale slaughterhouse! They even cater for kids with a variety of game killing “toys” to their disposal. We ate better than most Americans and experimented with many different beers and wines (even discovering a bottle of Nederburg at our local liquor shop). We discovered many fast food franchises and renowned supermarket chains. The prime discovery in this regards being Sheetz. Like an Engen one-stop on steroids, this gas-station devours dollars like none other. With shelves full of the best treats America has to offer, you can stock up on near anything there. But the clincher was their power-pumping cold-drink machine that delivered a near perfect cup of Coke Zero – this ended up being a perfect treat which Neil hand-delivered to Chantel’s office nearly every day. Sheetz is also home to the Americas best fast-food menu. This touch-screen driven magic device, allows you to build close to anything – stretching from the classic American hotdog all the way to a sandwich big enough to feed Ethiopia for a week. They also had the best milkshake machine, where you mixed your own magic.
We had free breakfast every morning and even though it lacked serious variety, it created an opportunity to kick-start the day in good company, although this caused Chantel and Lindy to be late for work EVERY morning. This deprived punctuality would unfortunately remain a trend for our entire tour. Neil at least got free editions of the best US papers and enjoyed reading them each morning, while he witnessed the turmoil caused by this chronic lateness. We also discovered some vibey pubs, from a Irish one where Neil and Chantel had a wonderful evening playing pool, to our local favourite Underdogs where cheap and fantastic buffalo wings (with more flavour options than humanly possible) and Jugs of Bud Lights perfectly complimented the small town America sports pub vibe. Many a night was spent in this murky retreat.
The only real heckler was that Chantel got sick and we struggled to find a doctor to nail the diagnosis. We went from expert to expert to no avail. We eventually decided to have all the necessary tests done and to subsequently put our trust in the South African education system that’s renowned for their brilliant doctors. We skyped the results to Neil’s dad and he made the diagnosis within seconds after which he flew in a medical parcel (via Joe) to our rescue. Not only did all the “expert” doctors fail to nail the diagnosis, they also got the prescription horribly wrong when told what the causal problem was. Fortunately our trust in the medical mind of the great Dr. van der Linde, proved vindicated and Chantel got better soon. America might be on the forefront on many things, but like we proved in golf, swimming and regularly through our educated prodigies – we don’t have to stand back for a second!
One of the best evenings spent in this small town, was a celebration of Lindy’s birthday. This gave us the opportunity to participate in a quiz night at a local pub. Realising our knowledge of trailer park facts, American sporting legends and Civil war politics were utterly limited, we failed miserably! After ending stone last, our host felt like doing his part for charity, through talking to these clearly mentally disabled participants! He was relieved to find that he didn't have to speak in Whale to be understood and was pleased to hear we stem from South Africa. As a consolation prize he tried bring a bit of South Africa to us, but this time he was the one to failing miserably, when his chosen tune to light the spirits ended up being a “Die Antwoord” non-classic. The remainder of the night was spent between pooltables and dancefloors and we realised we might as well have been in Pretoria. A taste of the usual, resulted in nostalgia driven hi5’s as we cheered the night away to all those we left behind. A good time was had by all…..
Harrisburg unveiled itself and what we found was a lovely little town that under promised and over delivered. Our home away from home will forever elicit beautiful memories.