Lessons Learned in the American South: #2 patriotism never gets old

22Nov09

6th Annual Pellissippi State Hot Air Balloon Festival

A few weeks ago, I ran into an ad announcing a hot air balloon festival hosted by a local college.  Funnel cakes, dog shows, craft vendors, and lots of giant, vibrant balloons from all over the Southeastern United States?  Definitely a winner.  So I gathered a few recruits, and went.

The afternoon brought tethered balloon rides, mediocre music acts, T-shirted Tennesseans in line to buy cheesecake-on-a-stick, and herds of happy, sloppy kids galumphing about with recycled plastic hand puppets and rock candy.  Though a delightful scene, the real treat came later.  According to the gate cop, a balloon glow would commence at about “dark-thirty.”  Sure enough, around dusk the long cumbersome process of launching the balloons began.  Giant picnic baskets lay haphazardly about the lake and balloon teams unfolded yards and yards of fanciful nylon.  Then, with a great wooshing sound, flames burst into a streaming cloud across the water.  One by one, more great wooshes torched the sky, as the balloons were slowly, painstakingly launched.

Spectators made their way over, claiming the last patches of shoreline free of duck scat.  The Pellissippi State balloon lifted off the ground, securing the center spot.  More than a dozen others–striped, zigzagged, or bearing logos–took shape on either side.  Over the loudspeaker, a twangy prayer accompanied the last launch–an enormous Energizer Bunny celebrating its twentieth birthday.  Once each craft took its position and the pilots were introduced, music erupted from the speakers.

Throughout a play list ranging from bluegrass to techno, the balloonists struggled to rhythmically light up and let off the heat.  The amateur spectacle dragged on, more comical than impressive, until the random tunes turned patriotic.  The balloons became dark and silent as “Star Spangled Banner” spread across the shoreline.  And there–amidst the ducks, French fries, and absurdity– the festival became truly celebratory.  We were all comrades, taking a moment to acknowledge a shared national heritage, or at least this one shared experience.  One song we all knew how to sing.  One history we could all recite.  Strangely, the abrupt shift from goofy to reverent pulled the whole anomalous event together.  The balloons resumed their visual metronome and taught me an invaluable lesson: patriotism never gets old.

But, how does this relate to travel?  Aren’t patriotic displays rather exclusive?  The charm of the American South comes not from force-feeding love-of-country to unsuspecting citizens, but from pulling patriotism right on out of people.  So, the lesson here:

  • Is NOT to brazenly wave your national flag in every country you visit.
  • IS to use affirmations like a shovel, digging into the tender nuclei of peoples’ hearts.

Patriotism never gets old.  Show interest what makes others tick, and they’ll be glad to have you around.  Go native; celebrate the holidays, explore the spirituality, and show interest in the idiosyncrasies of every culture you encounter.  As travelers, we have the opportunity to learn what citizens across the globe love most about their countries, to peek into the national traditions that tie a people to their soil and to each other.

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